In the same week that saw one of college sports’ greatest legends get ousted from his job, we saw another of its icons reach a remarkable milestone. On Monday night, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski won his 903rd game, beating the long-standing record of Bob Knight—his own college coach at West Point, his professional mentor and another of sports’ true greats. At Madison Square Garden in New York, the Duke Blue Devils beat the Michigan State Spartans 74 to 69, earning Krzyzewski the title of the most winning coach ever in men’s college hoops.
But Krzyzewski is a legend off the court, too. Arguably no other coach in history is as closely tied to the world of leadership than the man universally known as Coach K. Duke’s Fuqua School of Business has a Center on Leadership and Ethics named after him. He does speaking gigs for corporations that surely by now run $100,000 a pop. He has written five books on leadership, hosts a radio show on the topic, and has corporate executives the world over who want to be just like him. (Literally: In a 2006 profile in the New York Times, former Bear Stearns president Alan Schwartz told writer Michael Sokolove: “I think executives like me aspire to be his peer, and I don't say that tongue in cheek.”) For years now, Coach K has been more than a basketball coach. He’s a bona fide leadership guru.
As a result, you might think we’ve heard everything from Coach K there is to say about leading people and teams. But in the most recent issue of the journal Academy of Management Learning and Education, Coach K talks about his leadership approach with Sim Sitkin, a Duke professor and the faculty director of the leadership center that bears Krzyzewski’s name. The interview is insightful, thought-provoking, and instructive for leading teams in any field.
It feels like dangerous business these days to hold college coaches up on too high a pedestal. So I’d be remiss not to mention Krzyzewski’s tendency to berate players and refs and the legions of hoops fans who love to hate Coach K and his clean-cut “Dukies.” (I should also disclose that while I have no interest in following college basketball, my husband is employed by the university.) But someone who, year in and year out, somehow continues to produce an academically minded team of players that remains largely incident-free while still winning with ease—he hasn’t had a losing season since 1983—should be worth a listen. Here, a few of the best excerpts from the Sitkin interview:
• Adjust your strategy to your team. Krzyzewski recognizes what is far too frequently ignored in organizations that force people to conform to certain molds, work on fixing people’s weaknesses rather than focusing on their strengths, and expect a strategy to work even if it doesn’t leverage the best in its people. A hallmark of Krzyzewski’s approach is that he shifts his system each year to his players, rather than shoe-horning his players into his systems. When neither of his two recent co-captains, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, were very good at confronting other players, for example, Krzyzewski didn’t force the issue. “As a staff, we had to do more confrontation because the two guys we had, it didn’t fit their wheelhouse. I try to adjust my leadership based on who I have to help me lead the team.”
• Be your best player’s best friend. Krzyzewski is cautious about the role stars play on teams. “It is true that your best player can lead you to the Promised Land, but your most talented player can also lead you to the junk pile.” Their outsized influence on the team means that even if they’re good, their character still matters more. But once leaders settle on a talented player they’re going to back, they have to really get behind them. “Being the best player is a lonely position. Even though you get accolades, no matter how good of a team you have, there is always some level of jealousy. …I want to make sure that I’m connected with that guy because in a tense moment he also might produce better knowing that he’s not out there alone.”
When Krzyzewski was coaching the men’s Olympic basketball team, Krzyzewski says Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant told his youngest daughter, “‘Since I was in high school, nobody has tried to motivate me, they just pay me.’ But ‘your dad and his staff try to motivate us every day, and that’s so refreshing.’ Leadership is not just to let the star produce, but to be a friend of the star, to motivate the star. Your team is going to go a lot further if your stars push ahead, and everybody else has to work to catch up.”
• It’s the leader’s job to get rid of distractions. Krzyzewski calls meetings not just to work on offense or defense, but to ask his team members what’s bugging them. “You can lead better if everybody is not distracted,” he says. “Asking people how they feel or if there is something that is bothering them demonstrates your concern. It affirms that they are an important part of the team. And it also recognizes that they have eyes—that they can see things that you, the leader, may have missed or be blind to.”
• Don’t have rules, have standards. “When I [was the head coach at] West Point, we had a bunch of rules, all of which I didn’t agree with,” Krzyzewski tells Sitkin. “Usually when you’re ruled, you never agree with all the rules, you just abide by them. But if you have standards and if everyone contributes to the way you’re going to do things, you end up owning how you do things.”
To wit, when he was coaching the Olympic team, Krzyzewski asked some of the biggest stars in basketball, from LeBron James to Jason Kidd, to say what they felt the standards would be for their team. “Each of those guys put their hand up; they took ownership. It was no longer just their talent; now it was also the things they said,” Krzyzewski recalls. “I really felt it bonded us because it wasn’t just me putting on them something that I believed in. It was me asking them, ‘What do you guys believe in?’ ”
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