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(Fear of) Failure is not an Option

10/8/2008 --

Pistons legend Joe Dumars coaches Ross alumni on leadership and success.

Watch Dumars' speech in its entirety.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—NBA Hall of Famer Joe Dumars is immune to the fear of failure. It’s a condition he acquired playing in more than a thousand regular-season games with the Detroit Pistons. And it’s a quality that informs his leadership style as an executive competing off the court.

“When you are in an occupation that is literally judged by the minute, you get to a point when you have to lose fear,” says Dumars, now president of basketball operations for the Pistons. “I know what it’s like to live under real-time scrutiny and have my actions analyzed and over-analyzed.”

Living in that kind of bubble can lead a person to second-guess every move --- to the point of crippling inaction. But as the Pistons’ most-tenured player, Dumars says he learned early in his 14-season stint with Detroit that, “You can’t walk out on a stage like that and succeed with fear as the basis for your every move. It’s only holding you back. The career I chose really helped prepare me to do this: to transition to business and not be afraid.”

Since joining the Pistons' management in 2000, Dumars has played on that perspective in his daily dealings with players, agents, and other professional partners. He shared the following strategies on leadership, success, and fear with an audience of Ross School of Business students and alumni who gathered for the school’s annual Reunion Weekend Oct. 3.

Do your homework. “You need to know as much or more as anyone in the room when there’s a deal to be done. Know your business,” he says. “Don’t walk into a meeting and try to figure things out once you’re in there. It’s too late. And whatever leverage you thought you had you’ve lost.”

Don’t be afraid to be wrong. “I don’t mind taking risks and I’m not afraid to be wrong --- at all,” says Dumars, harking back to his point about homework. “There’s a big difference between being reckless and taking a risk. I’m talking about taking an educated, informed risk. If you know the subject matter, it’s not as big of a risk as you think it is.”

You can’t be selfish as a leader. “Sometimes you have to take the hit for your team,” he says.

Listen. “You can’t learn who someone really is if you’re doing all the talking,” says Dumars. “Agents inherently love to talk. When I’m in negotiations with an agent, I let them talk ‘til they’re blue in the face. If you cut them off early, you never get to those points that are most important to them, and you get stagnant -- bogged down in ugly negotiations. It has served me well to listen.”

Dumars’ professional segue from team player to team management occurred as a natural outgrowth of his upbringing in Louisiana. As the youngest of seven children, he was a gifted athlete, but was encouraged by his parents to strive for goals beyond the court.

“If you don’t define yourself, other people will,” he says. “I never saw myself as strictly an athlete. If your life is only judged by how fast you can run or how high you can jump, at 40, that doesn’t feel so good.”

Using his own transition to operations as an example, Dumars says it’s best to seek out a career that lines up with one’s passions. “You have to enjoy what you do, especially if you are in a leadership position,” he says. “You have to have passion. Without it, you can’t expect excellence from others. It’s not complicated for me. I love what I do. I’m open and honest and I don’t try to hide anything. I feel good about the way I deal with people.”

Dumars retired as the Pistons’ all-time leading three-point shooter (with 990 made) and its second all-time leading scorer with 16,401 points. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard also ranks second on Detroit’s all-time list for assists (4,612), second in steals (902), third in field goals made (5,994), third in field goals attempted (13,026), third in free throws made (3,423), and third in free throws attempted (4,059).

Since being named as president of basketball operations for the Pistons in 2000, Dumars has transformed the organization from a team that won 32 games in 2000-01 to a team that has compiled a record of 325-167 (.661) over the last six years.

Bold personnel decisions and an unwillingness to settle for mediocrity have become trademarks of Dumars’ leadership style. “The toughest thing to do in business is to come into an existing culture and make changes,” says Dumars, who was named the 2003 Sporting News NBA Executive of the Year. “You will encounter resistance. Those who resist want to see if you’ll waver. I’m sure there are plenty of basketball ‘fantasy’ fans who are upset by the players I’ve passed up. But those players would have screwed up my culture.”

Dumars, who became the seventh Pistons player to have his jersey retired, also had the NBA Sportsmanship Award named after him. He was named the inaugural recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award in November 1996, and his playing career was recognized with the highest of all honors when he officially was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September 2006. In addition, he was appointed to the executive committee of the United States Tennis Association in January 1999 and was most recently inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

Beyond his role with the Pistons, Dumars maintains a partnership in Joe Dumars Fieldhouse, an indoor multi-sports and entertainment complex located in Shelby Township, Mich. A second Joe Dumars Fieldhouse was opened in 2004 in Detroit.

—Deborah Holdship

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu