Leading Through Adversity

When the Toronto Raptors hired little-known assistant coach Darko Rajaković as their new head coach to replace Nick Nurse, who led their 2019 championship team, it was seen as a gamble. Rajaković had over 25 years of coaching experience, but he had never been the leader of an NBA franchise before. 

Leading Through Adversity
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It’s not often that two of my favourite things intersect. I’ve been a passionate fan of the Toronto Raptors since they joined the NBA, and their rookie head coach has demonstrated some excellent traits that corporate leaders can adopt and adapt to their business. 

What Corporate Leaders Can Learn from Rookie Raptors Coach Darko Rajaković

When the Toronto Raptors hired little-known assistant coach Darko Rajaković as their new head coach to replace Nick Nurse, who led their 2019 championship team, it was seen as a gamble. Rajaković had over 25 years of coaching experience, but he had never been the leader of an NBA franchise before. 

Just months into his first season, that gamble looked like it may not pay off. The Raptors were floundering with a 10-27 record. Losses were piling up; key starters Scottie Barnes and Jakob Poeltl suffered season-ending injuries, while others were traded away in a pivot toward rebuilding mode.

With G-league players filling important roles in the lineup, the Raptors suffered through one of the longest losing streaks in franchise history. Starting March 6, they dropped 15 straight games before finally upsetting the Milwaukee Bucks on April 6. The season that began with cautious optimism turned into a nightmare trial-by-fire for the rookie head coach.

Yet throughout all these challenges, Rajaković displayed leadership qualities that kept the struggling Raptors from completely going off the rails and offered valuable lessons for corporate executives seeking to lead their teams through adversity.

Consistent Communication Builds Trust

While wins were hard to come by, Rajaković earned praise from players for his open communication and transparency. Veteran Raptor Garrett Temple credited Rajaković for clearly outlining expected player rotations before each game, telling TSN’s Josh Lewenberg that this "gives players peace, a sense of calm."

This ability to provide a predictable structure and consistently communicate expectations is vital for leadership in times of uncertainty. By openly sharing information and logic behind decisions, rather than keeping people guessing, corporate leaders can similarly provide steadiness for employees amidst external chaos.

Emphasize Development and Process

With their playoff hopes fading, Rajaković could have taken the easy route by leaning into the tank for the remainder of the lost season. Instead, he continued emphasizing player development and accountability, using practices and film study sessions to focus on building better habits.

His commitment to continuous improvement and long-term building, even without short-term wins to show for it, is instructive for business leaders as well. Postponing or downplaying development efforts to focus solely on immediate results can be tempting in difficult stretches, but it often means mortgaging the future.

Adapt Strategy While Retaining Culture

In addition to development, Rajaković displayed adaptability. He overhauled the Raptors' offence to shift towards a more teamwork-driven approach, encouraging his team to pass and value assist. Such a willingness to adapt and innovate systems is crucial when pressures require it. 

All the while, Rajaković spearheaded culture-building efforts to keep players engaged through adversity. This ability to marry strategic flexibility with cultural consistency enabled him to weather challenging times. Corporate leaders similarly need to retain company culture and cohesion even when adjusting specific strategies or operations.

Focus on Fit and Evaluation

As the Raptors transitioned to youth, Rajaković made tough evaluation decisions regarding player fit and roster composition related to the team's goals. While these moves provided opportunities to some players, they disappointed others. Yet, throughout it all, his supportive tone continued shining through.

Navigating these waters to align teams with strategic direction is one of the more challenging leadership balancing acts. But despite tough choices, communicative, empathetic leaders can retain team engagement while shaping the right roster.

Praise in Public, Challenge in Private

Notable with Rajaković’s leadership style is that he often publicly praises or voices support for players while offering constructive criticism and accountability more privately. As some players noted, this contrasts with prior Raptors coaches who would openly criticize players through the media after poor games.

This concept of 'praising in public while challenging in private' is essential for leadership in any industry. Offering public support and acknowledgment of people's efforts while addressing performance issues more discreetly can uphold morale and relationships.

Breed Familiarity Through Shared Experiences

As the season progressed, Rajaković ceded more input over decisions to his players and staff. Temple noted how film sessions occasionally turned into lighthearted affairs, with attempts to mimic Rajaković’s Serbian accent. This exhibits the coach's commitment to building personal familiarity and using shared experiences to strengthen interpersonal bonds with players.

Such techniques for humanizing interactions, building familiarity & inside jokes between employees, promoting informal relationship-building, and enabling employees' perspectives to shape decisions can boost engagement. Particularly during times of adversity, investing in familiarity generates solidarity and trust.

Model Steadiness in the Face of Setbacks

When asked about his multitude of challenges in his rookie season, Rajaković simply noted in another interview, "I’m learning a lot. I’m learning how to get myself in the best possible state that I can, to help us be competitive." And through the storms of his first year, his unwaveringly positive presence provided a steadying influence that kept the team culture intact.

This ability to model steadiness at the helm and contain one’s stress or emotions to reassure others is, perhaps, above all else, what distinguishes battle-tested leaders. By facing turbulent times with poise and resilience, leaders inspire others to persevere.

The Bottom Line

Dark times challenge every leader and every organization. But karakter, the Serbian word for character, emerges in adversity, not comfort. The greatest leaders support their teams through the valleys and coach them to new heights on the other side.

For Darko Rajaković and the Toronto Raptors, the story is still unfolding, their climb back toward contention and prosperity yearning to be written. But already laden with hardship, Rajaković’s rookie campaign offers profound lessons for leaders everywhere on shepherding teams through turmoil.

His communication, transparency, steadiness, adaptability, developmental mindset, talent evaluation abilities, public praise/private criticism approach, commitment to building familiarity, and modelling of grace under fire in the face of setbacks provide a blueprint for effective leadership when the stakes are high, and the chips are down.

After all, if you can lead through a 15-game losing streak, you can lead through just about anything. Should the Raptors return to glory under his guidance, the seeds were planted in hardship and watered with resilience for this team and this leader.

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