What does the NBA have to do with the MBA?

What does the NBA have to do with the MBA? No, I’m not dysgraphic. Well I am, but that’s not the problem here. The connection I’m thinking about concerns the lin-credible Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks great new point guard. I promise not to use any more silly made-up words like Lin-derella Story, or the Lin-sanity that has overwhelmed people the world over. There. It’s out of my system.

Ok. All joking aside, I think we have a number of MBA lessons to learn from this NBA feel-good story.  Just a brief recap for those of you who have been out of touch with planet earth and aren’t acquainted with the Jeremy Lin saga. Lin, an Asian American point guard who graduated Harvard with a degree in economics, went undrafted, was  cut by two NBA teams, played in the developmental league, was picked up by the Knicks, and made his debut about two weeks ago and has become a star. His play has transformed the Knicks from a dysfunctional group of talented individuals, to a finely meshed team that could conceivably challenge for the NBA championship. How is this possible, and why should MBA applicants care?

It’s possible because basketball, like business, is a team game. If everyone is out doing her own thing, without taking team goals into consideration, the end result won’t be pretty. So it was with the Knicks, and so it is with many businesses. A team, whatever type, needs a leader. And Jeremy Lin has given new meaning to the term leadership. See. I didn’t say Lin-dership.

Lin has a number of great qualities that make him an outstanding point guard, the ultimate position of leadership on the court.

First, he has great vision, so he is able to get the whole team involved in the game. Players no longer stand around while one star goes one-on-one. If you are open for a shot, there’s a good chance that Lin will find you and you can score. He sacrifices his own glory for the good of the team and plays very hard on defense, which is contagious. Everyone is influenced by his unselfish play and tries to emulate him. Even the big “stars” have bought into his philosophy. Lin, like every great point guard or leader, has a gestalt effect on the team. That is, the team is better than the sum total of its parts because of his great leadership. He leads by example, which is exactly what we expect from a great leader.

We know that leadership is an important part of the curriculum of every business school because it is so important in determining the success of a business venture. The MBA programs devote much time and effort to honing leadership skills and I think Jeremy Lin has many of the qualities a great leader must have. He is smart, understands the big picture, is able to learn from his mistakes, is humble, caring, and desires to share the success with everyone on the team. He inspires his team to reach its full potential, and will always make sure that everyone is involved.

Another lesson we can learn from the Lin story is that you have to be in the right place at the right time. Lin has the type of skills that are best utilized in the system preferred by the Knick’s coach. It’s not certain he would do as well in other systems. Perhaps that is why he was overlooked by every other team, and even the Knicks let him warm the bench for most of the season. How can we apply this to the MBA? I would say that a candidate must have a clear sense of who he is and what he is suited to do. You might be an ideal candidate for healthcare and less suitable for finance. So as it is with so many other areas of life, you must know your strengths and weaknesses and seek out a career accordingly.

Everyone loves an underdog, someone who comes out of nowhere, defeats the odds, and becomes a star. This state of affairs isn’t limited to sports; it can also happen in an MBA program. I recall a candidate who took the GMAT five times, overcame his learning disabilities, was accepted to Cornell,  made a significant contribution to the program, and ended up with a very good job. But the thing that is most important to learn from my sports analogy is that leadership is something we can learn and develop, both in the classroom and on the playing field. Go Jeremy! After all, he might end up with an MBA after his career in the NBA.

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