NBA Coach David Blatt Teaches Us About Global Leadership

Posted on June 9, 2015

NBA Coach David Blatt Teaches Us About Global Leadership

NBA Coach David Blatt Teaches Us About Global Leadership

Growing up next to Oakland, California, with a love of pick-up games of basketball, I forged a natural allegiance to the Golden State Warriors, who are competing in the NBA Finals for their first appearance in decades. Despite my excitement at watching the success that the youthful and balanced Warriors have enjoyed this season, I actually find the story of their opponent’s coach even more interesting.

The first year NBA coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt, has had to learn not only how to coach in the most competitive professional league in the world, but also how to coach and lead a team in the United States. His story has lessons for the thousands of leaders facing challenging roles in unfamiliar cultures and contexts.

Mr. Blatt was born in Boston and played college basketball at Princeton. He then moved to Israel in 1981, became an Israeli citizen and spent nearly all of the next 30 years playing and coaching top teams in Israel, Italy, Turkey, Russia, and Greece. Last summer he was recruited as the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the time he agreed to join, the team was young and inexperienced with no big stars. And then Lebron James, the most dominant player in the game today, suddenly decided to return to Cleveland. As if making the leap from coaching in Europe and Israel to the NBA wasn’t already a challenge, he now faced an expectation that he could take his team deep into the playoffs. The season did not start well. By mid-season, the team had a 19-20 win-loss record and many in the U.S. sporting world questioned the decision of having a coach with no NBA experience put in charge of a team with the game’s best player.

Adapting to new a leadership context

Mr. Blatt had to learn very quickly that coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers was different from Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Israeli team he coached last season. For starters, the style of basketball played in the NBA is markedly different from international basketball. In addition, the pressure from fans and owners, the media circus that follows teams, and the level of celebrity of the players make Mr. Blatt’s debut coaching year an extreme leadership stretch assignment. Finally, figuring out how to effectively coach Lebron James, arguably the most dominating player on the planet (who may not feel he needs much coaching) magnified the challenge.

In an interview published in USA Today on Friday, June 5th, Coach Blatt said: “The learning curve was greater than I thought it would be. […] If you understand my system, then you know having coached in so many different environments and so many different cultures with so many different kinds of players, the system […] ultimately worked… It’s an adaptive system…” In just a few months Mr. Blatt has entered a completely new cultural environment, taken a new set of talented high potentials and superstars, shouldered enormous pressure to deliver results, helped forge this group into a highly effective team, and is now knocking on the door of a championship in his first season.

A demonstration of effective global leadership

David Blatt demonstrates the nimble leadership that successful global leaders in corporate and other settings share:

  • the self-awareness and humility to know what you don’t know
  • the ability to quickly adapt leadership behavior to fit a new and culturally different context
  • the resilience to not become overwhelmed by the pressure of the role

Corporate leaders in global roles can learn a lot from people like Coach Blatt.

On a personal note, although I wish him well and admire his early success with the Cavaliers, I’ll still be rooting for Golden State to win the NBA Finals. Just to be clear.

David Everhart

David Everhart currently serves as President of Aperian Global. David conducts leadership development programs, intercultural management assessments, and executive coaching assignments for American, Asian, African, and European management teams at multi-national firms across multiple industry sectors. Connect with David on LinkedIn.

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