I have a confession to make: I’m not an avid basketball fan. It’s a sport I just wasn’t exposed to when I was younger. While I might not be the person to participate in a fantasy league, I do know that teamwork, giving folks the opportunity to shine, and strong leadership all play into creating a winning lineup. And the person who was an absolute genius in building a dream team was Mike Krzyzewski (known as “Coach K” who coached Duke to five national championships and the U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” to three gold medals). Back in 2001, he authored Leading with the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life – my must-read book for anyone looking to do the same in business. Here are some of the things that I’ve incorporated from his leadership philosophy into my own.
Don’t get tangled up with too many rules.
In his book, Coach K wrote, “Too many rules get in the way of leadership. They just put you in a box… People set rules to keep from making decisions.” After nearly five decades of coaching, he learned early on that rules limit performance – for players and coaches alike. I believe that pushing boundaries is a form of excellence. On my team, we celebrate this kind of excellence by recognizing those who exhibit what we call the three E’s – execution (well-executed plays), enthusiasm (the ability to capture the hearts and minds of those around you), and edge (the willingness to do that one extra thing to outplay the competition).
The power of the team is based on what each individual brings to the court.
Coach K recognized people have different strengths, and as a leader was able to channel those into the vision of the team and naturally capture some excellence along the way. Coach K knew how to inspire people to play on behalf of the team by motivating them as individuals and playing to their strengths. He also fostered a culture where the name on the front of the jersey meant more than the one on the back. Veteran players helped coach his rookies; rookies brought new energy and ideas. “People have to be given the freedom to show the heart they possess,” he wrote. The best leaders have a system where people are able to scale their best practices in what they do – and it’s my job as a leader to give them that place to show that heart. We take a page from Coach K’s playbook when it comes to veteran players and rookies. Leaders with one year of experience have 360 meetings – where we can build a personal and actionable development plan that caters to the strengths of that employee. For folks who are new to the organization, we make sure they can start to shine quickly by pairing them with an experienced “buddy” and can immediately hit the ground running with a robust enablement agenda.
We’re stronger together.
Coach K likened a team to a fist. Stand alone, the digits on your hand are all breakable, but when gathered collectively, there’s strength. Our job as leaders is to assemble the smartest people around us because when we do, we’re impenetrable. Part of that is knowing what to look for when you’re building a team. A strong work ethic is table stakes when you’re working for a large enterprise – it’s more about coachability, a willingness to learn, and being okay with sometimes disagreeing to improve a process next time. It’s about helping one another and finding ways to grow together. “Great teams embrace responsibility,” Coach K. advised. “Win or lose together.”
I had the pleasure of having lunch with Coach K several years back and got to dig a little deeper into the book, find out how his experiences shaped his career and even heard a great story about how he worked with Michael Jordan on his footwork (even the greatest need a little coaching sometimes). What I came away with after that hour together was whether in sports or in business, it’s not about placing emphasis on individual wins or loses but rather on how we play the game and focusing on continuous improvement. It’s such a simple lesson, but it’s easy for us to get hung up on the what-ifs. My job as the leader is to maintain some sort of true north for my team, to find ways to adapt and encourage them to perform at their best. We all have to challenge ourselves to rethink some of the things we are doing. It’s about focusing on the long game, taking chances, brushing yourself off and trying again.