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Leadership, Player Development, and the Royal Jelly

The Leadership Game is a new, recurrent feature about leadership lessons from the world of sports.

On Sunday, the world champion Dallas Mavericks defeated the rival San Antonio Spurs in overtime on a last second basket by Jason Terry. It wasn’t the first time Terry had won a game with his crunch time heroics, and he scored the game’s final 4 points. Yet for all that, Terry was not the person most influential in deciding the game’s outcome. That distinction goes to Gregg Popovich, the coach of the losing Spurs.

With a few minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, Popovich pulled his best 5 players and brought in the second team; that was hardly noteworthy, as it’s not uncommon to rest your starters at quarter’s end. What was unusual was when Popovich decided to bring the starters back; he didn’t. Popovich chose to let his young, developing players go toe to toe with the world champs for the rest of the game. Even when the game went to overtime, “Pop” stayed with his young guns.

While this move raised some eyebrows around the league it caught the attention of David Thorpe. Thorpe is a world class player development expert, and this strategy was a perfect example of one of his leadership values, something he calls “The Royal Jelly”.

What the heck is Royal Jelly?

Like most brilliant ideas, Thorpe’s concept of the Royal Jelly is simple and elegant, drawing its inspiration from honeybees. All bees begin life genetically identical, which means that any bee can become a drone, a worker, or a queen. For the first 3 days of their lives, all bees are fed royal jelly. After that, drones and workers are cut off.

In contrast, future queens continue to receive the royal jelly, and as they grow they are accommodated with additional space. This combination of royal jelly and space to grow ensures a population of new queens, ensuring the sustainability of the hive.

Ok, but what IS it?

Now I’m not suggesting we should identify high potentials and cram them full of nutrient rich bee juice. Here is Thorpe’s definition:

“What players want more than anything else are authenticity, and a way to get better…they want a blueprint to get better, they want you to hold them accountable to that blueprint, and they want you to give them a chance to get better.” (For a complete explanation from the man himself, check out this podcast – it’s well worth your time.)

You may notice that Thorpe isn’t saying that we should coddle our employees. This is important because we’ve heard a lot about how young players are entitled and needy, requiring tons of hand holding. Thorpe is explicit that royal jelly isn’t about coddling, and is in many ways the opposite of coddling. Royal jelly is about laying out a clear plan for improvement, providing accountability for the plan, and then giving the players the opportunity.

What does it mean for government?

In the Federal government, we are actually pretty good about nurturing our bees through the first 3 days (first 3 grades?) Programs like the Presidential Management Fellows and the soon to be released Pathways give agencies a framework for entry level development: mentors, rotational assignments, training requirements, and opportunities to shadow senior leadership help to ensure that high potentials enter public service.

The problem is that just like those bee colonies, we abruptly cut off the good stuff once people hit the two year mark. It should come as no surprise then when we look around and see too many workers and drones and not enough future queens.

The Wisdom of Gregg Popovich

Which brings us to Sunday’s game, and Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s best beekeeper. Popovich evaluated the situation and made a deliberate leadership decision to trade maximum victory potential now for greater victory potential later. This is different than trading a win for a growth opportunity, even though that’s how the story played out. This was still a very winnable game for the Spurs, and if not for the heroics of Jason Terry, they would have won. What’s important is that Popovich took a calculated risk to invest in his young players now in a deliberate attempt to build the Spurs some Jason Terrys for the future.

Royal Jelly and the Future of Leadership

I was having a conversation the other day with some brilliant people over at Deloitte’s GovLab about undervalued frontiers for the future of leadership; that conversation led me to bring up the Jelly. I hear leaders spend a lot of time talking about “fit”. We need to hire for fit, this or that person isn’t a good fit, etc. Too often leaders assume things like fit and culture are a given, a part of the environment that is beyond their control. I think the great leaders of the future are going to be those who are best at sharing around the royal jelly. It’s one thing to hire high performers; it’s another thing entirely to take people with high performance potential and turn them into queens instead of workers and drones.

Dave Uejio is the President of Young Government Leaders, the professional association for aspiring government leaders. Join today at http://www.younggov.org.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I really enjoyed this post, Dave. Super smart and love it when a person can tie together disciplines like sports and science, then apply it to a sector. Great work.

Stephen Peteritas

+1 Dave, The sharing of “The Jelly” requires trust and risk which are both things the public sector is not prone to handing out freely. I think the best part of Pop’s decision is if “The Jelly” doesn’t take you don’t have to give it again but if it works it’s must easier to share again.

Anthony Bardonille


Great post! I love the Basketball analogy. It’s often difficult to trust your employees as a leader. Popovich and the Spurs organization have often been very astute in identifying potential that others have over looked. It’s a good lesson for all of us. Great work!

Please save me some of that Royal jelly!

BTW, I like the title.