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The North Star approach to impactful leadership

The “North Star” approach to impactful leadership follows the same path that elite athletes take to perform at a world-class level. In this episode of the Toughest Call podcast, Alan Stein Jr., keynote speaker and performance coach with over a decade of working with the NBA’s highest-performing athletes, shares how he used the North Star approach to pivot out of personal and professional burnout. Additionally, he talks about how he used his North Star to match the skills he acquired as an elite basketball trainer to identify a problem he could solve for corporations as a keynote speaker.

Alan Stein Jr.: When I continually do that type of introspection, for me the North Star is about fulfilment, it's about experiencing true joy. It's about having a sense of inner peace. It's about doing work that I love, and that I feel is making a contribution to others. And I'm doing it with people that I truly care about.

Chaz Thorne: Welcome back, or welcome to the Toughest Call, a podcast for organizational leaders where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career-defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz Thorne. In this episode, I'm talking with my pal Alan Stein, Jr. about how he defined what he calls his North Star. He uses this to pivot from leading young men like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Steph Curry into careers in the NBA, to leading corporate executives.

Alan, a performance expert and keynote speaker, is also the author of two books: Raise Your Game: High-Performance Secrets from the Best of the Best, and the recently released Sustain Your Game, High-Performance Keys to Manage Stress, Avoid Stagnation and Burnout.

As a fellow single parent, he also did me the honour of writing the foreword for my first book several years ago, called Single Dads Are Sexy. It's often a struggle to define what truly motivates us as leaders. This is the engine that sits beneath the surface and propels us forward. When we align this drive with our skills and capabilities, we can become unstoppable. Alan shares how he used his North Star to match the skills he acquired as an elite basketball trainer to identify a problem he could solve for corporations as a keynote speaker.

Alan Stein Jr.: I had been a basketball performance coach for just over 15 years at the time, which was the only career I had upon graduating college. And I was actually in Germany, getting ready to speak to a group of coaches from all over Europe on how they can properly train their basketball players in their teams to improve athleticism. And I remember right before I was about to go out on the court, I had just gotten mic’d up, and I noticed that I wasn't that excited to be there, you know, I wasn't and that was abnormal for me.

You know, for the most part, there's usually no place I'd rather be than in front of a group of people sharing something that I'm really passionate about. And I realized here I was having an opportunity to travel to a country that I'd never experienced, and things I'd never experienced in front of a captive audience, who was dying to hear what I had to share with them. And I just wasn't that excited about it. And thankfully, I'm a consummate pro, so I was able to put on my happy face and go out there and tap dance and certainly overdeliver for the group. But that really stuck with me. And in all my long series of flights home back to the States, I started to do some digging, and really realized that I was approaching burnout on being a basketball performance coach, that pouring into athletes and teaching coaches and focusing everything on improving player's athleticism just wasn't doing it for me anymore. And I knew that I was going to have to make some type of change.

I have so much respect and reverence for the game of basketball, for players, for coaches, for myself, that I knew that was not the type of work that I could just mail it in, you know that was something that I needed to make sure that my mind, body, and my heart were in full alignment, and they had been for the previous 15 years. But now that I noticed this little hiccup, you know, I sat with that for a little bit and I started to figure out: what did I want the next chapter of my life to look like? And did I still want it to be in the basketball performance space? And after a few days of reflection, it became crystal clear rather quickly. I decided that it was time to leave that space, put a nail and an exclamation point on that chapter and do something different.

Chaz Thorne: What kind of process did you go through to determine what it is you would do next?

Alan Stein Jr.: Well, first and foremost, I wanted to make sure that this wasn't an emotional reaction, and that it wasn't just something else that was going on while I was in Germany. And now I'm going to make this giant vocational switch. So, I started to really get even more introspective and self-aware. And then in hindsight, which is always 20/20, looking back over the previous few months, I noticed there were several red flags. There were actually other times that I wasn't as excited to be doing what I was doing as I had been in years previous. So, it wasn't like this was an isolated incident for whatever reason. There was this cumulative effect and little things [like] that happened for a few different months. And then right before I take the court in Germany, everything kind of came to a boil, and it really hit my awareness on that level. So, I made sure that I did my due diligence, and took the time to look backwards, to make sure that I wasn't going to make a massive change, based on a very small moment in life where I was maybe having an emotional reaction.

So, once I started looking back and digging a little deeper, it became crystal clear to me that a change was in order, and that I needed to do something different, again, not only for my own happiness and fulfilment, but from my respect and reverence for the game. And the players and coaches I was serving, you know, they deserve someone that is all in. And as soon as I knew that I no longer wanted to be all in, it was time to make that change.

Chaz Thorne: When you were going through that process of deciding, okay, this thing that I'm doing now, I recognize that this is no longer for me. And I really respect the fact that you recognized that you couldn't bring it any more to what it was that you were doing. And I really respect the fact that you recognize that and decided to move on from it. But when you were in this process of going, ‘Okay, no more of that. What do I want?’ Was there anyone that you talked to during this time to get their input on what was going through your head about the pros and cons of the decisions you were about to make?

Alan Stein Jr.: Yeah, there was a series of people, some of which were incredibly close to me. And I would consider people in my inner circle. But then many of which were also kind of on the peripheral, you know, more acquaintances, if you will. And a lot of those folks happened to be people that were in the corporate space because I wanted to get a feel for them if they thought my message, and my ability to teach and coach and speak and share was a need that they had, you know, I didn't want to go jumping out of one vocation into another where there wasn't a problem for me to solve, or there wasn't a need for my service, you know, so I wanted to get a feel for that.

And so I reached out to at least a dozen people. Again, I knew them on varying levels, but just said, Okay, you work in the corporate space, you know, you are an executive or you are an entrepreneur, or you lead a sales organization, you know, what are your biggest challenges? What are your biggest pain points? What are the areas that you and your team struggle with the most?

And I started taking notes. And then I started to notice some overlap and some trends among each of those folks I was speaking with. But more importantly, I noticed that the trends that I was seeing were things that I very much felt were in my wheelhouse, they were things that I was going to be able to address, you know, there were issues with leadership, issues with communication, issues with building real cohesion, so that everyone would collaborate together.

And these were all things that I have learned through the game of basketball. And I had learned while working with players and being a part of basketball teams, so once again, there was this alignment, there was, you know, a problem to be solved. And I felt very confident that my experience and expertise and ability to teach and coach, all aligned with that. So, that actually gave me tremendous confidence that there was a need for this.

And, you know, a good portion of what I was doing even in the basketball space, which is why I was in Germany in the first place, was speaking to large groups. Now, most of what I was speaking about at that time, I would be on court with a group of players, and I would be demonstrating different physical exercises, agility drills, and so forth. So, they weren't really keynotes at the time. But it was still the fundamental concept of me being in front of large groups articulating a message and teaching. And that's how I viewed this new vocation. So, it wasn't like I was, you know, going to have to completely develop an entirely new skill set.

At this point, the way I looked at it was it was going to be some smaller nuances that I was going to have to tweak, that there is a difference between speaking to one hundred 15-year-old basketball players in a giant gym, and speaking to 15 executives in a boardroom sitting around an oak table, you know, there's a different way to present and to coach and to share. So, those nuances I knew would be something that I would have to really work on and study and refine.

But that's what actually excited me, you know, as I did that, increased self-awareness and introspection I realized that I was starting to get complacent on the basketball side, you know, but by no means does that mean that I knew at all or was you know, at the top of the world at what I was doing, but I was starting to get complacent. Because improving my acumen in the basketball space, it just didn't excite me anymore. It didn't fascinate me anymore.

And then when I looked on this other side of the curtain, you know, that's what really did excite me the thought of challenging myself by learning these nuances and learning new content and material and figuring out how can I take my strengths and share that with an organization so that they can flourish and improve? I mean, it completely lit my fire. And, you know, once I started getting some opportunities to speak, I knew I had made the right decision, I was in the right spot.

Chaz Thorne: I hope you're enjoying this episode of Toughest Call, and, my team and I get organizations aligned in just two days with strategic plans that fit on a single page. And since strategy is all about making decisions, we created a suite of free decision-making tools for organizational leaders like you. So to get some assistance with your next tough call access these complimentary resources at

After you made this decision and made this significant change in terms of what it was you were focused on doing for a living, was there anyone that sort of jumped out to you that became a significant ally, or even moments where you felt supported or allyship with someone as you sort of struggled with those ups and downs that came as you stepped into this new career as a keynote speaker?

Alan Stein Jr.: Well, two things come to mind that I think truly helped insulate those ups and downs as I made this journey first. And I know you and I have talked at length about this in previous discussions, but this also happened, kind of on the heels of me getting divorced. So, on one level, I have this massive personal change in my life, where I'm ending a relationship, you know, I'm no longer going to be with the mother of my children. And I'm basically going to, and I say this in air quotes with a huge smile, “start over personally”. And I had already begun that journey. And while yes, there were certainly some challenging times with that, and painful times, but generally speaking, on the broad spectrum of divorce, and the broad spectrum of starting over personally, things were going pretty well for me, and they were pretty favourable, which added to my confidence level.

You know, I remember thinking, and once again, I say this with a wink and a smile. You know, two years ago, I started over personally, and things are going great. Why don't I just start over professionally, now, I don't see any reason why they won't go equally as great. So, that certainly helped with my confidence, and, you know, so being able to take that leap personally, and then be able to back that up professionally was very helpful.

The other part is, I've been self-employed my entire career. I mean, from the moment I graduated from college and decided to become a basketball performance coach, I've owned my own business, and I've been my own boss. So, I had already gone through so many ups and downs of building a basketball training business and knew everything that went into being my own boss and leading my own way.

So, I knew what to expect in this new realm. I didn't take anything for granted, I certainly didn't underestimate how challenging and difficult this was going to be. There was no part of me that thought, you know, okay, you've built up credibility and a business and a resume in the basketball space. Now, all you got to do is show up and smile, and all of a sudden, you're going to be this world-renowned speaker. There's not an ounce of me that thought that, in fact, part of what invigorated me was the challenge of going back to square one, you know, going ascending the elevator all the way back to the bottom, becoming a rookie again, and entering a new area where I was going to be brand new.

Chaz Thorne: Alan, I've known you for a little while and obviously I know you to be a relentlessly positive person, which I have a lot of respect for. But also you just alluded it, any changes like this, also bring about those ups and downs and difficult moments. What's one that jumps out to you, where you were really starting to, you know, struggle potentially with the choice you had made, or you came up against a block in terms of moving forward in your speaking career? What's a moment that jumps out to you where one of those individuals did show up for you and sort of like helped move you along?

Alan Stein Jr.: About a year and a half into the new speaking journey, I happened to get introduced to a mutual friend to my current manager and agent Michelle Joyce, who runs a speaker management firm in the United States, and I'm one of her 10 speakers. And met her, once again, so thankful that I met her just at the most opportune time. After being in the business for about a year and a half, and not making the progress that I felt I should have made, I could feel myself getting a little bit frustrated and I needed some guidance. I needed some mentorship, I needed someone that really knew that space. And stars aligned, once again, I meet her. It took some persistence on my end to convince her to take me on as a client and to be part of her roster.

Truthfully, at the time, I was probably a little bit green, I didn't have the speaking resume that her other speakers had. But she could tell that I had the raw materials to potentially be a pretty good speaker. And she could tell that I had the perseverance and sticktoitiveness, because I was pretty relentless in following up with her, and finally convinced her to take me on and she became and still is to this day, my primary support system for everything speaking wise. You know she was able to really outline because she'd been in the business for 20 plus years, and worked with some just incredibly internationally renowned speakers. And she was able to provide me with some insight into their journey, especially when they were first starting off. That let me know that the timeline that I was on, even if it felt like it was going slower than I wanted it to go, was actually going faster than most of the speakers that she had had a chance to work with. So, her perspective and helping me see some of these blind spots, boy that came at the right time and was in the right place. And it was something I needed. And she's been a tremendous friend and leader and mentor since and is still helping guide me through this, this process. And, you know, even to this day, we had a conversation the other day. I was sharing some things there and she said, ‘Alan, don't forget, you've only been doing this for five years.’

Chaz Thorne: What are some of the key takeaways for you that you'd like other people to know that might be pondering a similar tough call in terms of a change in their careers?

Alan Stein Jr.: One is to continually increase your awareness, like, get clarity on what you consider your North Star to be, like what you know, really get crystal clear on your core values on the life that you'd like to lead, get crystal clear on the person that you're trying to become, and figure out what is most important to you. And, you know, when I continually do that type of introspection, for me that the North Star is about fulfilment, it's about experiencing true joy. It's about having a sense of inner peace. It's about doing work that I love, and that I feel is making a contribution to others.

And I'm doing it with people that I truly care about, like all of that stuff mixed together is kind of my North Star. And when it became crystal clear to me that I would not be able to reach that North Star on the previous track that I was on, that respectfully that track had run its course, because I want to make sure I say that I loved every minute that I was in the basketball space. I love the opportunity to share with the players I worked with and to work with, and teach the coaches I had an opportunity to experience things with, it just ran its course. And that was no longer going to be the path to take me to that North Star, and it was time to find something else.

And you know, I have the awareness now that I love what I'm doing currently. But I don't have a crystal ball 10 years from now, I might find that what I'm doing at present is no longer putting me on that path to fulfilment and inner peace. And it might be time to pivot again or do something different. And that will be okay. I'm not a finished product, you can't put me under museum glass. It is absolutely under construction and a work in progress and will always be evolving. But I like the direction that I'm going and the lessons that I've learned over the last 35 years. I'm putting those things into practice, and I like the direction that I'm going and to me, that's what's most important. Michelle has certainly been a huge pillar of that.

Chaz Thorne: So, in terms of your book, Sustain Your Game, how have you extracted lessons from this journey that you've been on over the past five years, and put them into that book to share with others?

Alan Stein Jr.: When I write, whether I'm actually writing a formal book to be published, or it's even just social content, I'm usually writing about what it is that I'm going through in the stage that I am in my life. And that is so true even with both of these books.

You know, three years ago I was looking to find ways to optimize my own performance, and I wanted to write something that would be of service to the world around me and something that would add value to anyone that read it. So, you know, I wanted to write something that would allow people, as the title says, to raise their game and work towards optimal performance in any area of their life. And that's certainly where I was in that headspace while I was writing that book. Now, this is not to imply that I've reached optimal performance, because that's going to be a never-ending journey.

But now that, you know, three years later, this concept of being able to sustain excellence that once you've reached a certain level of mastery, or you've ascended to the top of that mountain, then how do you stay there? But more importantly, how do you stay there with a sense of fulfilment and inner peace, and I found that the pandemic only really heightened this exponentially, I found that the three biggest detractors to sustaining long term fulfillment and peace and excellence is burnout, stagnation and stress. And those are really the main key themes of Sustain Your Game. And those are three things that I have, and will always be wrestling with in my own life.

Chaz Thorne: Alan, when we talk again in three to five years, which seems to be our pace of our conversations, where do you hope your game will be at then?

Alan Stein Jr.: What I found as in you, as well as folks that put content out into the world, you know, there's a direct correlation between what we consume, and what we produce. It's input versus output. And I am a voracious reader. I devour podcasts. I'm always turned on to things that are filling my bucket that I'm learning. And then what I believe ultimately my role is, is to take all of these things I'm learning, internalize them, figure out and discern the best ways to use them to get me closer to my North Star. And then find a way to communicate and articulate those same strategies to others so that they can be of service.

Chaz Thorne: What motivates you as a leader now, this isn't a surface motivation, like money or helping others but the one you really feel in your gut when your work aligns with what truly drives you. In conversations I've been having with leaders lately, many are sort of expressing this frustration or even full-fledged burnout right now. For some of them, that's a direct result of the additional pressures of leading through the pandemic. But for others, they've lost their drive, they've realized that their present position or organization just no longer engages them, it's not really giving them what they need. For Alan, he identified what his drive was that allowed him to have that pivot, what really excited him in his work, and that, mostly for Alan is having the opportunity to inspire, and motivate others to achieve their best. Identifying what truly motivates you and ensuring that you pursue professional opportunities and ways of working that tap into that drive is key to maintaining inspiration through the many shifts that we all inevitably encounter throughout our leadership careers.

Now, over the years, I've found that what propels most leaders forward tends to fall predominantly anyway, under one of six broad categories. Those are belonging, wisdom, loyalty, justice, autonomy, or harmony. Now belonging is the drive for companionship with others as part of a pure group. And when you're in that zone, you feel very accepted when you're out of that zone. If belonging is your dominant drive, you feel very alienated from people without a drive for belonging. They're often quite sociable, but those that don't have that drive, tend to favour spending more time by themselves.

Wisdom is that drive for understanding and when you're pursuing it, you feel the sense of wonder. But if what you're working on is out of step with seeking wisdom, you'll probably be disengaged or even bored. And people with a drive for wisdom embrace intellectual pursuits, they'll spend a great deal of their time thinking, reading, writing, conversing, whereas those that aren't motivated by wisdom, they'll oftentimes find intellectual or academic pursuits tedious. Loyalty is the drive that motivates people to embrace moral codes of conduct.

So when you're tapping into that, it produces feelings of dedication when you're disconnected from it, it can produce feelings of guilt or even shame. People with a strong drive for loyalty will often focus on issues of character and morality principles. Those that don't feel that sense of loyalty are much more likely to just sort of skate by those matters quickly. A drive for justice motivates people to support social causes, pay attention to current affairs, or give to charities. Now when that drive becomes satisfied, it produces feelings of compassion. Whereas when it's not being satisfied that is justice, it can produce feelings of outrage. And people with a strong drive for justice may care deeply about such social causes as world peace, uplifting others or world health. People with a weak drive, they're more focused on events in their own lives rather than on larger issues facing society.

Autonomy is the drive for self-reliance, it motivates people to make their own decisions and value their personal freedom, the satisfaction produces joy. But when it's not being met, it can produce really uncomfortable feelings of being dependent. People with a strong drive for autonomy, tend to be quite self-reliant, but those that don't have that motivation are more inclined to trust others to meet their needs.

And then finally, harmony is the drive for structure and motivates people to plan, schedule, and organize. The satisfaction of it produces a sense of comfort, whereas when it's not being met, it can make those that have a drive for harmony feel very anxious. People with a strong drive for harmony tend to be very organized. And then those that don't have that drive of harmony, they're quite comfortable with just winging it around things. Now, no one is motivated purely just by one drive. But knowing what your dominant drive is can allow you to craft your professional life in a way that ensures you get the most out of what you need to actually remain engaged with your work.

If you want to quickly identify your dominant drive we created a free interactive assessment for you. After your drive is revealed when you take the assessment, we'll also give you some tips on how to tap into that drive more each day. So go to now and select the free rapid assessment titled What motivates you as a leader?

Chaz Thorne: If you'd like to learn more about Alan, you can check out his website at You can also find "Raise Your Game: High-Performance Secrets from the Best of the Best" and "Sustain Your Game: High Performance Keys to Manage Stress, Avoid Stagnation, and Beat Burnout" wherever you buy your books. And if you'd like some assistance with your own tough calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to Toughest Call, please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I hope this conversation helps you when faced with your next tough call.



Alan Stein Jr.

Alan Stein, Jr. is a keynote speaker, author, consultant, and performance coach with more than 15 years of experience working with some of the NBA’s highest performing athletes like Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. Through his customized leadership coaching programs, he transfers his athletic coaching expertise to maximize both individual and organizational performance.

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