Nancy Lieberman on Leading Without Fear


Two things can happen when you play basketball: you can win, or you can lose. Nancy Lieberman, one of the biggest names in U.S. women’s basketball and the first female head coach in a men’s professional league, has gained insight on fearless leadership from her decades of playing and coaching the sport.

“I’m a basketball player,” says Nancy in this episode of the Leadercast Podcast. “I’m wired to win, and I’m wired to compete.” In this episode, Nancy shares essential tips for leaders about how to handle fear, how to trust your team, and how to balance work and life.

No Fear

As a woman coaching men, Nancy could have given into what she describes as mind monsters: “He likes me. He doesn’t like me. My hair is nice. It’s not nice,” Nancy laughs. 

Instead, Nancy chose to be clear in her actions and to say what she means. “I try to keep things as simple as possible,” Nancy says. Sometimes that means remembering to stick to her role. Coaches coach, players play. Coaches don’t shoot baskets from the sidelines; they wake up at 4:30 a.m. to meet their players at the gym and spend hours on their laptops reviewing plays.

“[As coaches,] it’s our job to influence players to be better than they thought they ever could be,” she says. “And we give them the strategy and everything that they need for those moments.” TWEET

Early in her career, Nancy received some important advice from her longtime friend Muhammad Ali about fear that has always stayed with her: “He took my hand and said, I want you to respect everybody, but I want you to fear nobody.”

Nancy also credits her fearlessness to the many men who have supported her in her career. “At every level, I’ve been championed by men who get it, who are not afraid, who are self-confident, who want to make us better,” she says.

Her fearless attitude is one of the major reasons she garnered so many record-breaking achievements. She credits the athletes who have always been her examples of fearless leadership. “We want people to come back to the arena to see these athletes who are tremendous role models,” she says.

Strong Teams

As a coach, Nancy has to communicate with her players about the good and the bad. “You have to learn how to communicate, or you’ll be mediocre at everything you do,” she says. TWEET

During a time out, you don’t have time to explain every single detail. You have to quickly communicate what you need. It’s like being in a corporate boardroom and having just 20 seconds to draw up your proposal—with a band playing loudly behind you. “Whatever your vocation, whether you’re a manager, whether you’re a CEO, you have to be able to be relatable to your players,” she says.

You also need to surround your team with people who can be leaders, too, like assistant coaches, interns or fellow team members who build each other up.

“Team trumps talent,” she says. TWEET

Nancy tells a story about when she gave her intern credit for the idea behind a winning play very early in her coaching career. “Do you know how that made my team feel when they saw their coach not grab all the attention and all the glory?” she says. “I just deflected and said, ‘Hey, that’s why we have a team.’”

“We should all want to be on a super team and want to move the ball a little bit and make people better,” she shares.

Keep It Balanced

Professional lives and social lives can be difficult to balance for anyone. Here are the ways Nancy has seen effective work-life balance.

1. Know your priorities. “Faith, family, work,” Nancy lists. “It’s really important to honor that.”
2. Take family time. 
“I want to have memories with my kids. I want to have memories with my family—and I’m in control of that,” she shares, suggesting that you should say no to some invitations in order to say yes to family.
3. Remember to rest.
 “We can’t go 100 miles an hour every single day in both work and in our social life,” she says.
4. Define success.
 Nancy wanted to play basketball and coach basketball—and that’s what she did. “I wake up loving what I do and wanting to help other people,” she explains.

Along the way, Nancy’s role models showed her how to accomplish goals and keep her mindset positive. “I could have been a victim of my environment growing up in New York,” she admitted. “Who were my role models but African-American men? And they didn’t let me down. They encouraged me, they championed me.”

“If you have a positive outlook, the only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude and your belief,” says Nancy. TWEET

For more meaningful leadership insights like Nancy’s, check out the Leadercast Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play or Stitcher.



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