Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from NCAA Women’s Basketball

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I participated in an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by meetings in Los Altos. On Wednesday, I had several meetings and conference calls and then this morning, I participated in the Berkshire Hathaway Energy “Our Familia” Employee Resource Group (ERG) panel with facilitator Angelica Silveyra, current Chair of the panel and director of Customer Contact at NV Energy, Amy Key, Principal Engineer with Mid-American Energy and Antoine Tilman, Vice President of Customer Operations with NV Energy. Now, I sit down to write this post to you.

It’s been a while since we covered any sports news on the blog, and if you know me, you know I love sports and the lessons they can teach us about life and leadership. So, this week, I thought we’d dive into some lessons from the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. On Sunday, Louisiana State University defeated the University of Iowa 102-85 to win the 2023 NCAA women’s college basketball national championship, claiming its first-ever national title – not only in women’s basketball but also in collegiate basketball for the university.

Read more: Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from NCAA Women’s Basketball

In other history-making updates, the LSU Tigers and Iowa Hawkeyes combined for the most points scored in title game history, and LSU set a record for the number of points scored by a team in the final.  Here are a few key leadership takeaways from the NCAA women’s basketball tournament this year:

Play by your own rules.

After winning the tournament, LSU’s Angel Reese said: “Just keep being you. Never let anybody tell you no or that you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” She talked about how people tried to create an image of her that was unlike the way she really was – or saw herself. But as Reese explained, nobody can define who you are but you.

Yahoo! Sports writer Shalise Manza Young wrote in a poignant article published earlier this week: “Reese [is] smart enough to see the game for exactly what it is and insistent that she’ll play by her rules, thank you very much.”

I was sent Young’s article by Johnnie Johnson, my good friend and former All-Pro for the Los Angeles Rams, author of “From Athletics to Engineering: 8 Ways to Support Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for All.” In his note to me, Johnnie said when he wrote his book, he knew that talking about race would cause discomfort for a great many people. He also knew that sports at all levels of the game would continue to provide an outlet for these necessary conversations.

Reese’s “just being you” mentality is an excellent example of the kind of straightforward, honest discourse we as leaders must embrace for our team members and organizations. Diversity is as much about togetherness as it is about individuality, and Reese’s insistence that she is defined by no one but herself celebrates the progress-making combination of the two.

This tournament was more than just a collection of fantastically played games; it was a movement toward greater equality.

Caitlin Clark, a star player for the University of Iowa, helped take her team to their first championship appearance. She was named Naismith Player of the Year and was also the first player ever – in women’s and men’s NCAA basketball – to earn a 40-point triple double in tournament history. For my non-sports readers, a triple double is when a player scores at least ten points, ten rebounds, and ten assists in a single game (i.e., double digits in three categories).

The history-making, record-breaking games translated into bigger audiences than ever before. A reported 2.5 million people watched Iowa defeat Louisville in the Elite Eight, and to put that number into perspective, televised NBA games this season have averaged about 1.6 million viewers, according to Nielson data.

Yet as fantastic an athlete as Clark is, she still faced microaggressions and inappropriate comments on her highlight reels and videos. The uncalled-for comments raise serious questions about the connection between the rise in popularity of women’s sports and why they were less popular in the first place. These women are extraordinary athletes, with passion, commitment, and talent that’s incredible to watch. Everyone should tune in with just as much enthusiasm as they do for the men’s tournament – if not more. I was on the edge of my seat watching Iowa play South Carolina, texting with Iowa Realty General Manager John Dunn. At exactly 8:49 p.m. Pacific time on Friday, I texted him and asked if he was watching, to which he responded: “Epic. I can’t wait for your Thoughts on Leadership.” So, if you like this post, you have John Dunn to thank.

Sports should bring people together, not tear them apart.

This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament experienced a 42% jump in viewership compared with last year. And the championship game was the most-watched college women’s basketball game in the history of the sport, peaking at 12.6 million viewers.

In a Harvard Crimson article, staff writer Marley E. Dias said: “Sports are meant to bring communities together, teach children important life skills in cooperation and discipline, and entertain. The suggestion that history-making athletes like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are anything less than extraordinary is more than false. It is a harm to the young girls on the court striving for excellence.”

So, what’s the message? The truth is, I wish this was one leadership post I didn’t have to write. Women athletes don’t just deserve their day in the spotlight because of this tournament, they deserve their day in the spotlight because they work hard, fight for every win, and commit to greatness in a way that will inspire generations to come.

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