Leadership Lessons from the San Antonio Spurs

Greg Atkinson

The San Antonio Spurs crushed the Miami Heat for the third game in a row (including two on the road) to win the NBA Championship Title. I have pulled for Tim Duncan and the Spurs since Duncan came into the league. As I watched the game, I was inspired to write about leadership lessons that we can all learn from the well-coached San Antonio Spurs.

  1. Build, don’t buy.
    They say the Miami Heat is the best team money can buy. The San Antonio Spurs have chosen to build their team through the draft, recruiting good team players (not necessarily superstars). This resonates with my personal philosophy of ministry for the past 20 years. The first 11 years of ministry, I was a worship pastor. I recruited and built a worship team/band at every church I served. Yes, I had heard of churches that paid their band, but I didn’t agree with this philosophically. It takes very little leadership to show up and lead worship with a paid band.It takes true leadership to recruit, train and lead/build a team of musicians and shepherd them in a way that they grow spiritually and musically.  I remember spending tons of times in local music stores, getting to know musicians and finding talent in our community. I’ve tried to mentor several worship leaders and teach them this crucial concept. It’s what I call “shaking the bushes.” I always say, “You have to go out and shake the bushes. Get to know the musicians in your city.” And to be blunt: You can’t do this if you sit in your office all day playing guitar.I was a guest on the Church Tech Weekly podcast last week and we went into great detail about leading, shepherding and being an equipper vs a doer. We were talking about the great shift that is taking place for technical directors that are now needed to be leaders and equippers and not doers who actually run equipment on Sundays. It was a great conversation that would benefit all church leaders to listen to, including Executive Pastors and Senior Pastors.
  2. Failure is part of leadership. Get back up.
    The Spurs lost to the Heat in the NBA Finals last year. They used that failure to light a fire in their hearts and fuel their passion to get back and win it all. Tim Duncan said it lit a fire in all of them, which is easy to see as they are the #1 team in the league this year, with the best record in the NBA.In my new book on innovation and leadership, I talk about the role failure plays in innovation and the importance of progressing forward and getting back up after you fall down. The Spurs didn’t dwell in their loss. They didn’t let loss define them. They learned from it, grew from it and went back to work on how to overcome it. The fact that they are back in the Finals this year again, shows their dedication to excellence and a culture of winning. It’s also a tribute to their amazing coaching and team leaders that set the tone for the rest of the team.
  3. We, not me. It’s all about teamwork.
    If you’re a fan of good basketball (like me), then you can’t help but love and appreciate how the Spurs play the game. They are the most unselfish team in the league. They play team ball and constantly encourage one another. Their players are unselfish and teachable. They are passionate and engaged whether on the court or on the bench. When something good happens on the court, you can see the entire bench cheering the players on.Lebron James played a good game each night, but it wasn’t enough. He was one man playing a united team that was functioning on all cylinders. This philosophy of team ball and unselfish play comes straight from future Hall of Fame Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Pop” is a great example of an excellent leader who has built something special that will go down in history. To see a short sample of their teamwork and the amount of passes that they do before taking a shot, take a look at this video.
  4. Be healthy. Promote balance.
    The Spurs are the most balanced team in the NBA. They are as good defensively as they are offensively. They shut down Lebron and the very talented Heat team for most of the Finals. They are also a team with depth – having there bench lead the league in scoring. Competence exists at all levels of their team (whether or not they’re coming off the bench). Do you have depth in your organization? Do you have balance?
  5. Be in it for the long-term. Longevity is key.
    Coach Popovich is the longest tenured coach, not only in the NBA (18 years), but in 4 major sports. He has built something magnificent. Tim Duncan has been with the Spurs for 17 years. Tim Duncan is the only player in NBA history to start for a Championship team in 3 different decades. Let that sink in!Duncan, Parker and Ginobili (the Spurs “Big Three”) have been together for over a decade. This year they passed the “Showtime” Lakers trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper as the second-most durable trio in NBA history.Too many leaders skip around. I wrote about long-term leadership in both of my leadership books. Dig your feet in, plant roots and build something to be proud of.

The Heat are great and very talented. They’ve won Championships and will probably win again, but if I’m building a team, I’m going to approach it the Spurs’ way. I think if we learn from what the Spurs value and teach, there is much to be gained. How are you building your team? What do you think we could learn from the Spurs?

This Greg Atkinson post appeared at gregatkinson.com as: Leadership Lessons from the San Antonio Spurs

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