Lisa Bluder’s Leadership Clinic

April 4, 2023

Mathias Gran

The Iowa Hawkeyes Women’s Basketball team captivated the nation with its best-in-nation offense while earning a spot in the national championship game which was viewed by an estimated 6 million people.

While most of the sports journalism world was deservedly enthralled by the skill and smarts of Caitlin Clark, there was another star on the screen who traded in layups for leadership. Lisa Bluder, the veteran Hawkeye coach, delivered a clinic in authentic leadership for anyone willing to watch the press conferences surrounding the final games of the NCAA Tournament.

Sports press conferences serve a purpose: to get a few quotes from key members of the team to help sports writers build a story around an upcoming game or bring extra meaning to the outcome of the most recent contest. The exchanges, however, can be underwhelming. Journalists can sound uncomfortable or rushed. The questions can be rambling, leading, or easy to dodge. It almost feels like a chore for everyone in the room.

However, Coach Bluder used the platform to make something meaningful, demonstrating her leadership maturity. And if you’re a leadership or personal development geek like me, you can see her shine. In the press conference leading up to the Final Four matchup with the overall favorite to win the tournament, Coach Bluder demonstrated a deep understanding of organizational culture, individual development, and psychological factors of high performance.

The values of relationship, effort, and belief are clear in the way the team interacts on the floor, speaks about their efforts, and celebrates the strengths of each team member. To a casual observer, the way Coach Bluder spoke to the culture of the team might sound like luck. Perhaps she happened upon an admirable recruiting class. However, I believe Coach Bluder built intentional behaviors that support the shared goals and values of the program.

Supportive, authentic team cultures create a virtuous cycle of attitudes and behaviors. Coach Bluder inferred that her team and staff would do anything they could to keep the experience going. She shared, “if you didn’t like the people you’re around, this would be a chore, it would not be much fun. When you trust the people you’re around, have respect for them, when you know they’re doing their job, it’s such a comforting feeling and you don’t want it to end.”

Coach Bluder also contrasted different developmental approaches when asked how the team would prepare for the matchup against the overall #1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks. She said, “It’s less practice, more mental… You’re not going to get better at boxing out right now. I’m not going to go into the gym and teach them a skill like that.”

In leadership development, this contrast is composed of horizontal development (skill development) and vertical development (expanding perspectives and meaning-making). Coach Bluder recognized that becoming more technically proficient would not be as impactful as engaging the context and perceptions around their upcoming game. Vertical development strategies are all about challenging our own perspectives and experiences to gain wisdom through distance, while having support to be uncomfortable in the process. The first statement Coach Bluder made in the locker room when Iowa secured their spot in the championship game was, “There is no reason why you can’t win the championship.” Yes, she was celebrating with her team, and she was challenging everyone in that room to think of themselves as national champions, as it was a new frame of mind and self-perception.

Coach Bluder impressed me the most when answering two questions about her star player, Caitlin Clark. In the first question, the reporter challenged Coach Bluder to reconcile the paradox of “coaches like control” and “Caitlin needs a lot of freedom.” We need more leaders to pay attention to the following response from Coach Bluder.

On control, she yields to the strengths and uniqueness of the individual. She said, “when you try to stifle somebody like that, you’re ruining the type of player they are.” Taking an individual approach to development and team systems, Coach Bluder shared, “a good shot for her is totally different than… a good shot for somebody else.” The key is to help Caitlin “play in a system a bit without putting out the fire of Caitlin Clark.”

How often do we see leaders or managers expect team members to conform, repeat, and reproduce? How reluctant are we to view differences in strengths as gifts? What does it demand of us as leaders to accept individuals’ differences as potential rather than hindrances to efficiency?

The final question was about Caitlin rising to the challenge of the toughest opponent in the sport. Coach Bluder masterfully reframed the question as a statement of empathy and support. Afterall, a college basketball team is a collection of 18-22-year-old students in the throes of one of the most transformative stages of their lives. Just being a college student is hard. Playing a sport at the highest level is hard. Being recognized as the AP Player of the Year and reaching the title game creates additional attention and expectations.

Coach Bluder shared, “I just want to take the pressure off of Caitlin. She knows a lot of eyes will be upon her and I want everyone else to step up and help carry that weight for her. That’s a lot. That’s a lot for a 20-year-old. [I want to put the focus] on the rest of the team because they want to help shoulder that.”

Wow. Coach Bluder is not suggesting that Caitlin couldn’t handle the event, rather she wanted her team and players to thrive. Understanding the psychological factors that might be at play for each person in the program provides a chance to meet each person where they are, a chance to acknowledge and work through any challenges, or a chance to simply be seen and appreciated. This is a big deal. We can all do more to help each other carry the weight of what is in front of us and perhaps release some of what is behind us.

Lisa Bluder casually demonstrated enviable leadership skills and authenticity during her press conferences on the biggest stage in her profession. She reflected the long-term value of investing purposefully in the everyday behaviors that define organizational culture. She demonstrated excellent discernment when timing mental development over skill development. And she leveraged deep care and understanding for the individuals on her team to help create the opportunity for success.

Want to see Coach Bluder’s entire press conference? Her solo segment starts at 3hrs 28mins: