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3 Lessons From Boston Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla's Success

The Boston Celtics' choice to stick by Coach Joe Mazzulla last year has three important leadership lessons for us.

The loss was ugly, and pressure was mounting.

In Game 3 of last year’s NBA Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat ran a seemingly lifeless Boston Celtics team off the court, 128-102, and the scathing criticisms and calls for the dismissal of Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla came pouring in.

“No trades, but fire coach Joe Mazzulla instead,” USA Today declared in the days after.

“The Celtics need to move on from Joe Mazzulla,” The Boston Globe stated.

On Monday night, nearly 55 weeks after that Miami loss, Boston beat the Dallas Mavericks, 106-88, winning the 18th NBA title in franchise history.

But it might be Celtics President Brad Stevens’ choice to stick by Mazzulla amid the cacophony of criticism last season that has the most relevant leadership lessons for us:

1. Be patient with your personnel

In sports and business, we crave instant success and being ahead of the competition. But in our haste to obtain the desired result, it becomes easy to overlook the monotonous grind and struggle that often proceeds any meaningful pursuit.

It’s crucial in these instances of frustration to not capitulate to impulse or public opinion and to instead take a broader, strategic assessment of state of the organization. The person we want to throw to the curb today may be a pivotal part of our success tomorrow.

2. Every leader will look bad at some point

Mike Krzyzewski was 38-47 in his first three seasons at Duke. Nick Saban was just two games over .500 in his first four years at Michigan State.

We often focus on the triumphs of the most successful coaches and leaders, but seldom do we acknowledge their disappointments or struggles. The truth is that everyone who has ever accomplished any meaningful has blemishes on his/her resume. The more relevant factor to consider isn’t whether he/she will stumble but whether he has the emotional intelligence to learn from it.  

3. Coaches and management improve as well

Mazzulla took over under extenuating circumstances (the suspension of Coach Ime Udoka days before the start of training camp) last year and was the youngest head coach in the NBA.

While we often talk about “player development” and “employee growth,” seldom do we acknowledge that coaches and leaders get better with reps and study as well. Who we are today often isn’t who we’ll be tomorrow.

As the clock ticked down on Monday night, Mazzulla and Celtics star Jayson Tatum shared a powerful hug on the sideline amid the roars of 19,500 fans. 

But the joyous screams of this year were made possible, in part, because Stevens tuned out the noise last — recognizing the young coach many wanted fired was capable all along.

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