June 12 2018

I just finished watching the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors conduct a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and – even as someone who is not a die-hard Warriors fan –  this was impressive to watch.  In addition to enjoying the athletic highlights of such a performance, I believe that the social movement we find ourselves supporting – a community-driven movement for equity, opportunity, racial justice, and wellness – could benefit from key themes that the Warriors embody as a team.  These four themes are:

1) Clarity of Vision; 2) Talent; 3) Structure; and, 4) Culture.

The first of these is the matter of clarity of vision.  Many professional teams begin the season with a practical, incremental goal in mind: “win more games than last year”, or “make the playoffs this season.”  The Warriors had winning the championship as their singular goal – anything less than that, they would have considered a failure.  Every player on the Warriors team, every coach, and the management office began the season with this clear vision in mind: whatever it takes to win the championship.

Secondly, the matter of talent.  When the already talented Warriors identified and recruited superstar Kevin Durant to join their team a couple years ago, the pundits in the sports world embarked on two, basic narratives about how this would turn out.  The optimists predicted a championship.  The pessimists observed that the Warriors might implode – the theory being that teamwork would suffer at the hand of too many egos.  But each of the immensely talented team members were willing to sacrifice egos and attention in pursuit of the compelling vision of winning a championship.

Which leads us directly to the third factor, that of structure – or in basketball parlance, a system.  Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his staff deserve credit for creating a system of offensive attack that would optimally utilize the broad array of talented stars, and “role” players on the team.  The Warriors’ team utilizes an offensive structure that is fast-paced and dynamic, with active ball movement so that each and every player is contributing to the action.  These teammates are truly connected on the court.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the matter of team culture, and a spirit of mutual accountability.  I find it intriguing that when the Warrior players are interviewed after a game, they never utilize the word “I” in describing how the game was won – it’s consistently “we”, even when the interviewer poses a question about an individual achievement on the court.  When something goes wrong on the court, the Warrior players then use the word “we” in an accountability frame – “we needed to play better defense,” or “we were sloppy with the ball.”

In the fourth and final game to win the championship, we witnessed a subtle, but powerful moment on the sidelines with the Warriors team, and it was noticed by the TV announcers.  Warriors star Klay Thompson made a mistake during the game, resulting in being removed from the game for a short period.  When Klay found his seat on the bench, it wasn’t the coach who engaged him about his mistake – it was one of the veteran players on the bench who was observed providing words of counsel and encouragement about the mistake that Klay made.  It is a pretty unusual event for one of the lesser-known players on the bench to coach and counsel one of a team’s mega-stars in the spirit of mutual accountability.  This exchange spoke volumes about the team’s chemistry and culture.  Klay later returned to the game and performed beautifully.

The lessons for those of us working in California to promote themes of wellness, racial justice, inclusion, and opportunity?  First, we must endeavor to join hands in support of a clear, shared vision for our state. Many community leaders and organizers speak to the need for what is alternately referred to as a shared vision, a shared narrative, or a “social compact” for our state and nation.  Such a shared vision would describe what communities expect in partnership with the government that serves them: a set of values, principles and expectations for public policy.

Secondly, our nearly ten years of work in Building Healthy Communities tells us that we have an enormous reservoir of talent – organizational and individual — fighting for social and racial justice and equity across our state: across so many communities and geographies, of diverse races and ethnicities, and of varying ages and generations.  This talent must be better nurtured and supported by those of us in the field of philanthropy.

Thirdly, we must do a better job of connecting, networking, and organizing the talent we have across many communities in pursuit of the shared vision of equity, justice, and opportunity.  Many of our partners and grantees at the grassroots level have invited our foundation to think more about structure and “infrastructure” for movement-building — and think less about foundation-driven “initiatives.”

And finally, we all need to step up our game by supportively holding one another accountable for our actions and our leadership – in relentless pursuit of this shared vision.  As the Warriors displayed in their run to the championship, we need young, rising activist talent supported by an older generation of social justice warriors and veterans.  We see some of this already, but our foundation has been encouraged to support the “spaces” where shared leadership can flourish in the spirit of intergenerational teamwork.

Congratulations to the Warriors and their rabid Oakland fan base.  For the rest of us, key lessons to learn.


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