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By Amy Franko

I love the March Madness tournament season– watching the games, seeing who’s making it through each round, and especially the stories that emerge. There are two stories that caught my attention this March, because they epitomize the choices we have as leaders, and how we show up in every situation.

UConn’s 111-game win streak was one of those stories. 111 games. That’s over two years of not losing a single game. Not. A. Single. One.

Itty Bitty was one of those stories. Itty Bitty is Morgan William, a 5’ 5” guard from Mississippi State. There was more than one debate about whether she’s even that tall. Didn’t matter though because she was the clear leader, running the floor and playing as tall as her 6’ 7” teammate. Her at-the-buzzer shot in overtime snapped UConn’s streak and chance at their fifth title in a row.  Everything was rolling her way at that moment in time, unstoppable.

The UConn women were so used to winning, that the players on the floor that night had never lost a game in a UConn uniform. They had no idea in their college careers to date what it was like to be on the other side, to feel defeat, and then figure out how to pick themselves up. Coach Geno Auriemma had to explain to his team that what they’ve experienced with this streak isn’t reality. That, at some point, we all have to learn how to deal with loss, with failure, with things not going our way. How they responded to this loss would help them craft their identity moving forward.

Now fast forward two days later to the Championship game, when Mississippi State fell to South Carolina. Itty Bitty wasn’t anywhere to be seen in the last quarter of the game. This power player was benched by her coach for not bringing enough energy to her performance. There was just nothing left in the tank from the previous games against Baylor and UConn, so in her place another point guard led the way. Itty Bitty didn’t complain. She was on the sideline cheering her teammates on, and if coach called her up she would be ready. She wasn’t called back into the game. And for Coach Vic Schaefer, a pretty gutsy (and unpopular) call to bench your impact player on the biggest stage.

What do these stories tell us as leaders?

When we’re on fire and everything we touch becomes successful, it’s so easy to be energized and positive, to feel like winners. We have that momentum to carry us. Are we using that momentum to lift the people around us, to create opportunities that make our organizations (and our people) stronger, more engaged?

When we’re at the lowest-of-the-low and nothing is going our way, do we find a way to continue showing up with the same energy? And if we aren’t showing up in the right way, are we surrounding ourselves with other leaders who are willing to bench us, so to speak, so that we can reflect and regroup? Are we using those moments to help us shape how we respond?

Each of these situations, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, teaches me that it’s my choice to consciously shape my leadership identity, and it’s always my choice on how I show up.

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