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To be a great leader, you need to see the whole court

For Leadership Lab, Dan Mackenzie, vice-president and general manager of NBA Canada, will be interviewing key players for their insights on leadership from the basketball court.

Lenny Wilkens is one of only three people inducted into the James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. The rarity of this double induction is a clear demonstration that not all great players are great coaches. Coaching takes a different mindset and an adapted skill-set. The same is true off the court; the job skills that allow professionals to excel and move up the ladder are not necessarily the skills needed to lead when they reach the top.

Mr. Wilkens – whose distinguished career includes nine National Basketball Association All-Star Game appearances as a player, an Olympic gold medal and one of the most successful records of any coach in NBA history – offers an interesting perspective and experience with this challenge. I spoke with him about transitioning from a successful career on the court to a coaching role where he was just as effective.

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There are several lessons for business leaders to take from his experience:

See the whole court

"I saw the whole floor, immediately. I mean as soon as I got the ball, I knew where my teammates were."

Mr. Wilkens' experience as a point guard is what helped him the most as a coach. "Point guards know the game better … they understand what the coaches are trying to accomplish." On and off the court, effective leaders need to call the right plays and this can only be done with a clear understanding of the bigger picture.

As early in your career as possible, learn as much as you can about your organization and your industry. Aim to be the point guard – the person who knows the game best.

Understand everyone's role on the team

"Everybody must understand what their role is, and how they fit in. If they do, then you have a chance to be successful."

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Mr. Wilkens is referring to power forwards, centres and point guards, but his advice applies to any organizational structure. Leaders need to guide an organization and understand how each individual contributes to the team.

Make an effort to understand the roles of your employees in different positions and departments. You will be a better leader when you can clearly communicate to all employees, in any role, what is expected of them.

Use your time-outs

"If it's not working or they're not doing what I think they should be doing, that's what you have time-outs for."

As a coach, Mr. Wilkens didn't play any games but was ultimately held responsible for the outcome. "They're out on the floor and you hope they do what you want them to do … fortunately you get to call the time-outs." Similar to the way coaches watch the game closely and call time-outs as necessary for coaching sessions, leaders should touch base with their team regularly to ensure projects are running smoothly, offering guidance and direction. "You can't be afraid to give constructive criticism. Help them to be better, because when they are successful, you are successful."

Step in if you don't like the way things are going or foresee a potential issue. Unlike a real game of basketball, there is no limit on the number of "time-outs" you can call to remind your team of the game plan.

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Understand what motivates your team

"The one thing the players want is their minutes. If you take minutes away they're going to pay attention. When a player is doing well, I'm going to reward him with the time."

As a former player, Mr. Wilkens understood how to motivate his players: playing time. There are always ways to motivate, and as a manager it's your responsibility to find them. At one point in your career, you have been in similar shoes to the people you manage; think about the challenges you faced and the things that motivated you. Use that insight as a manager.

Build a relationship with your employees to stay in touch with the challenges they face day to day. "You can't put yourself on a pedestal. If you are approachable, then you will be aware of what's going on around you and that's important."

Before basketball, Mr. Wilkens worked in marketing and sales for chemical and agriculture biotechnology company Monsanto and served with the United States military. Though these fields were unrelated to basketball, Mr. Wilkens says the experience gained in those roles, interacting with a variety of people and personality types helped him immensely as a coach. This is another good lesson: There are opportunities everywhere to develop leadership skills that will benefit you in your career.

Whatever your outside interests or hobbies may be, you can likely find leadership lessons and apply them to your career. Personally, I like the parallels between sport and business.

Dan Mackenzie is the vice-president and general manager of NBA Canada (@nbacanada).

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

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