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How Do “Cinderellas” Beat the Big Boys in the NCAA Tournament? With Alignment to Mission and Vision

How Do “Cinderellas” Beat the Big Boys in the NCAA Tournament? With Alignment to Mission and Vision

The 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is in full swing after a year off due to COVID-19, and the first weekend of games, which never disappoint for drama and excitement, gave even more intrigue. Teams from 15 of the 16 seeds advanced past the first round, which has never happened before. The question from everyone who follows the tournament is: How do teams with such lesser levels of talent defeat teams that are predicted to be among the last four standing at the Final Four? How does B-level talent conquer A-level colleges and stars?

The answer can be examined from the lens of team alignment during times of added and unique stress. First, let’s get into some context.

The Tournament is set up with teams placed in seeds based on their performance over the course of the season. Number 1 seeds are the best teams — usually the best four in the country. The 15th and 16th seeds are teams that won their conference tournament from the least talented conferences in the country. They could be ranked as low as 100th in the country or lower.

The teams at the top of the bracket have players, by all objective measures, who are bigger, stronger, quicker, and more athletic than teams at the bottom of the bracket. That’s the main difference between these teams. The lower-level teams, generally, shoot, dribble, and pass the ball just as well as anyone else. However, because of the physicality differences, they are B players to the top teams’ A players.

We see similar differences all of the time in the business world, and often find that B-level employees can outperform their A-level colleagues. The B players don’t lean as much on their natural talents and focus on how they can perform their role effectively and efficiently. Their grasp of the purpose of the team and how they can impact it is stronger than A players, who rest, significantly, on the belief that they can impose their will and talent on a situation.

Also, because these B players are aligned with their role in achieving the mission, they, in many cases, show a greater resiliency in the face of added stress and varying situations.

In the iconic words from legendary basketball coach John Wooden, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” This statement is true to a point. Talent may not be as fundamentally sound and resilient in the face of added stress. They don’t always work on the right things the right way at the right time. When a group of B players know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and have faced stressors that the A players may not have, the B group has opportunities to emerge victorious.

To be sure, there are teams in the NCAA tournament that destroy B-level teams. They’ve either trained themselves better in the fundamentals or have taken the stressful situation and turned that stress around onto their opponent. They impose their will on the less talented group until they just don’t have enough to combat the onslaught. As the tournament progresses into the second and third weeks, it’s usually those teams that have both A-level talent and alignment to their purpose that emerge victorious. Guided and nurtured by leadership (coaches), they utilize their great skill in a fundamental manner in the midst of higher and higher levels of stress and challenge.

What can you do with your team of A and B-level players – because you have them both – to put them in positions to succeed under various situations and stress levels?

Connect Everyone with, and Align Them to, the Mission and Vision of Your Organization

Connecting A-level talent with the purpose can be more challenging than doing it with B-level players. Part of their success is the confidence that they can accomplish anything because of their individual ability and force of will. They’ve been able to succeed in less stressful situations without having to work hard, and they feel they’ll be able to figure out a way to succeed in any situation. However, it’s critical to lead them in a way such that these talented individuals can understand how mixing their talent with fundamentals can be good for all.

Find Ways to Test Employees and Teams with Different Situations and Stress Levels to See How They Respond

When individuals and teams have a variety of experience performing in scenarios with different factors and stress levels, it tests their fundamental capabilities and helps them bridge gaps and build capacities that will make them more resilient. Rather than leaning on their innate talent, they lean on their experience and the fundamentals developed individually and as a team.

Develop Both A and B Players in the Ways They Need to Be Successful in the Toughest Moments

Development of B players to maximize the talents they have can turn them into A players. There are certainly A players on the B teams, but providing the tools to these players to perform at higher levels in tough situations gets B players to play at A levels when needed. Not developing A players to align to purpose and engage their fundamentals will cause those players to perform at a C level when the stressful time comes because their foundations crumble when they’re needed the most.

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by Art Johnson // By Erik Beckler and Art Johnson. Art Johnson is CEO of Infinity Systems, Inc., a management consulting firm where he helps leaders identify and rectify organizational misalignment. His new book is The Art of Alignment: A Data-Driven Approach to Lead Aligned Organizations (Made for Success Publishing, Feb. 23, 2021). Erik Beckler is Chief Alignment Whisperer for Infinity Systems, Inc. Erik is currently writing a book on the Four Fundamental Forces of Leadership – Love, Respect, Service and Fun, to be released in 2022. Learn more at

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.