Winning Culture vs. Higher Purpose

This year’s NBA Finals kickoff today and offer sports fans so many exciting story lines. Obviously it’s a rematch of last year’s Finals, which is rare. Only 13 times in history have the same two teams been back to back in the Finals. It also features two of the game’s top superstars going head to head, Cleveland Cavalier’s LeBron James and Golden State Warrior’s Steph Curry who have combined to win six of the last eight MVP Awards and who are the respective faces for two of the biggest sports brands Nike and Under Amour.

Winning Culture vs. Higher Purpose

In an applied business context, though, there’s perhaps another interesting storyline emerging which is the idea of higher purpose vs. a winning culture. Which one wins out?

The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be driven by higher purpose. Five decades have passed since the sports-loving city of Cleveland has seen a championship, despite the obvious passion and support for their teams. The Browns (NFL) were so close, so many times. The Indians (MLB) had amazing teams in the 1990s, but they didn’t bring home a championship either. Cleveland needed a championship. This was the reason LeBron came back to a relatively small market in 2014 after four years, four trips to the Finals and two championships with the Miami Heat. LeBron is from Ohio. In fact, he grew up just outside of Cleveland. He wanted to bring a championship to the Cavs, which he couldn’t do in his first go-round in 2010. That is what drives him, and that’s the message he delivers to his team every night. This isn’t for him, or them. It’s for Cleveland. It’s a higher purpose.

The Golden State Warriors also have purpose -- they made a conscious decision to overtake the 1996 Chicago Bulls win total, for example -- but their team is more an example of building a winning culture.  Steve Kerr, this season’s Coach of the Year, was a player on those 1990s Bulls teams. He coaches with the same calm approach to building winning teams as Phil Jackson, his inspiration. Phil Jackson is the coach with the most NBA Titles to his resume and is often called The Zen Master because of his deliberate approach to building successful franchises. Kerr is similar. Following in the footsteps of great basketball coaches like the legendary John Wooden, Kerr helped build the Warriors brick-by-brick as a winning, unselfish culture. Andre Iguodala, for example, would probably be a starter on most NBA teams. With the Warriors however, he embraces his role coming off the bench -- and he’s been critical to Golden State’s success. Winning for your teammates is one of the most unselfish things you can do in sports, and it’s the hallmark of a winning culture.  The current Golden State team embodies all the best principles of group cohesion where teammates share unbreakable connections and humbly leave their egos in the locker room to make incredible personal sacrifices for the benefit of the team.

There’s a second business theme to the 2016 NBA Finals to consider: The Superstar Paradigm. Cleveland has LeBron, Golden State has Curry. These are undeniably two of the best players in the sport of basketball right now. LeBron might be in consideration for top five all-time; when it’s all said and done, Curry might be, as well. But these teams aren’t at this final stage solely because of their two superstars. When The Raptors had stolen two games from Cleveland in the Eastern Finals, it was Kevin Love who stepped up for the Cavaliers. When the Warriors had to play on the road in a game where a loss would have ended their season (at Oklahoma City), it was Klay Thompson who set a NBA playoff record for 3-pointers made and scored 41 to keep them alive -- on a night where Curry was mostly cold.

The Superstar Paradigm applies in offices, too: most companies, have their superstars -- a rainmaker, a marketing savant, a development whiz, etc. Those superstars are essential contributors but are not what separates good organizations from the great ones. Like teams, organizations thrive when every player is essential and believes they contribute to the success of the team. When everyone understands their role, is aligned with the goals of the team, and is willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get there...that’s when the magic and the championships happen.


In this year’s NBA Finals, it will be interesting to see which superstar and which team is able to harness its best and which driving force will win on the grandest basketball stage of them all.  Ideally, your business is blessed to have a couple superstars, but more importantly it's working towards developing a higher sense of purpose (what LeBron is chasing right now) and a winning culture (what Golden State has developed). In your organization, it doesn’t have to be either/or. You can actively focus on your purpose and build a winning culture.  The best way to start is by listening to the people who know your business best -- your employees.  If creating a purpose-driven, winning culture sounds intriguing, book a free demo with Waggl – it’s what we do.