The Assist

The Stanley Cup playoffs are over and the Pittsburgh Penguins emerged victorious. Watching them beat the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings reminded me that in order to win, there must be a degree of selflessness present so that the performance of the team overall is more important than an individual’s performance.

Sidney Crosby, the youngest Captain ever to hoist the Stanley Cup, is a good example of this attitude. He is often cited as the nucleus around which the team has been built. What makes Crosby so valuable–and a transformational leader to his teammates–is not so much his personal point total, which is formidable… it’s how much better he makes everyone else on the team.

Transformational leaders make everyone around them better at what they do. They are masters of “the assist.” An assist is an act that enables the other person to be successful. It is the epitome of unselfishness. No team can expect to prevail without a commitment to putting the success of the team ahead of personal gain.

Basketball, hockey, soccer and other team sports value and reward the assist. As a matter of fact, you get as many points for an assist as you do for a goal. Those who master this practice are called “play-makers.” They are seen as invaluable team leaders, vital to sustainable success.

In a recent New York Times article, Sen. Bill Bradley recalled a conversation he had with another basketball legend, Oscar Robertson, about the young Michael Jordan, a third-year pro in the N.B.A. at the time.

“He’s not great yet,” said Oscar.

“Why not?” Bradley asked.

“Because he hasn’t learned how to make the worst player on his team good,” Oscar replied.”

What a concept! When was the last time you heard this definition of greatness applied to an organizational leader? At work, we need to adopt the assist as cornerstone of organizational values and behavior.

Here are four practices that you can use to generate assists:

Situation Awareness

Situation awareness is the ability to see what is happening around you and use that information to make real time decisions about the best opportunities and means to achieve collective goals.

It requires clarity about your goals, the goals of other people and collective success. Peripheral vision, anticipation and the ability to determine who is in the best position to achieve a result, are means to capitalize on situation awareness.

Recognizing Strengths and Weaknesses

Transformational leaders learn about the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates to elevate their teammates contributions to shared goals. These leaders consistently search for ways to make others better and strengthen the team. They see assisting others as a solid, sustainable foundation of a winning culture.

By contrast, complaints about the performance of others and envy of their success is commonplace, almost normal in most workplaces. Worse still, in dysfunctional organizational cultures, the strong prey on the weak for personal gain.

Those that recognize strengths and weaknesses–and seek to improve the team by assisting others to grow and improve–provide invaluable support to overall team performance.


Loyalty to the team and its members may be an “old school” value but it’s a value that works in any era. Athletes certainly strive for strong bonds among players and some of those relationships last a lifetime.

In our parents’ day, those same qualities were upheld as the glue that united people in the workplace and led to productivity and civility. In too many workplaces today, civility is sacrificed to unhealthy levels of internal competition. People are looking out for Number One. In that kind of environment the assist is endangered, if not extinct.

Loyalty is a commitment. It announces that day-in and day-out, you will do your best for the team and your teammates. That is a promise that when made and lived out forges a bond that is intensely powerful.


Generosity is the fourth quality that generates assists. Generosity is the ability to give and receive in equal measures. This leads to flow within the team.

Giving is the active form of generosity. In team play, giving consists of contributing your gifts, talents, assistance and help in support of other team members and collective goals.

Receiving is the ability to accept help from others so that you can make a valuable contribution to the team. We must be willing to accept ideas, suggestions, advice, coaching, and best practices from teammates. This requires a degree of maturity, self-confidence and openness.


 Transformational leaders strive to make everyone around them better. It not only makes good business sense to focus on collective performance first, and personal accomplishments second; it also catalyzes unselfishness and inspires everyone to look for ways to generate a winning culture.

Playmakers who seek to make everyone around them better, usually end up being the team M.V.P.



Posted on July 1, 2009 .