Thoughts on Leadership: Leadership Lessons from Coach K

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me at home, starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I participated in an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by our monthly CEO leadership virtual meeting. On Wednesday, I attended meetings in San Jose, California and today, I spoke and trained the team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Chicago on mindset and the West Coast Offense for running a real estate company or team. Of course, I also sat down to write this post to you.

Our topic today revolves around a key leadership figure, a college coach so influential in the world of basketball and beyond, that as the NBA playoffs continue, you can see his impact on game play. He coached a total of 68 NBA draft picks, 42 of whom went in the first round.

I’m speaking, of course, about the legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski, also known as “Coach K.” His incredible career took off in 1980 after Duke University hired him to coach the Blue Devils’ basketball program. He’d been coach at Army West Point for five seasons, and while it would be a few more years before the Blue Devils became a powerhouse college basketball team, in 1985-1986, the team won ACC regular-season and tournament titles.

Here are a few more impressive stats about Coach K: He’s coached 37 All-Americans, nine national players of the year and a total of 208 players.

“A leader has to be positive about all things that happen to his team,” he once said. “Look at nothing in the past as failure.”

In the spirit of Coach K’s philosophy of looking back to build a brighter future, let’s do a full court press on his leadership skills:

Each interaction with a player on your team matters. Sports Illustrated, in a tribute article to Coach K, noted that his “success does not come from what he does with X’s and O’s. It is in his ability to shape people into a team.” It’s true. What is a team but a collection of varying personalities, cultures, backgrounds, and experiences that must somehow come together for the collective good of all? Somehow, they must make it work – or to quote a concept from last week’s Thoughts on Leadership, they must find their swing. Coach K understood the last player on the bench might play a pivotal role in the upcoming game; the person playing the best might not be the player going full out, even if the scoreboard says they are. One player who is clearly struggling might need kind words while another player struggling in the exact same way might need some tough love. He once said: “When you first assemble a group, it’s not a team right off the bat. It’s just a collection of individuals.” Coach K’s magic can be found in those small, daily interactions and the way he calculated how each one transformed his group of players into a fierce, winning team.

A good leader can adapt to changes and doesn’t fear making tough decisions. Coach K said: “The truth is that many people set rules to keep from making decisions. Not me. I don’t want to be a manager or a dictator. I want to be a leader – and leadership is ongoing, adjustable, flexible, and dynamic.”

A winning team is a tough team to beat. In 2010, Sports Illustrated described Duke’s performance as “emblematic of a team that finished 35-5 and won with toughness rather than style.” Before a pivotal game, Coach K wrote four words on the locker room’s white board: STRONG. TOGETHER. TALK. CRASH. Strong is a reference to their team strength. Together speaks to their team chemistry. Talk is about their ability to communicate among the team. Crash refers to their willingness to crash the boards. Why? Because the team is tough, willing to do whatever it takes – and not just whatever is convenient – to win.

Humility means progress. Coach K once said, “It’s perfectly fine to say you’re not good enough. The question is, what do you do to be good enough?” In other words, be humble enough to admit your mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with not being at the level you want to be, as long as you come up with a plan, the “what you do” to take actionable, measurable steps toward progress. In 2008, the day before Team USA would compete in the summer Olympics (Coach K was selected as their coach) he was asked about the team’s prospect of winning gold. His answer? “I think we’re humble enough to do it.”

Your team needs to believe in your mission, otherwise winning is impossible. Participation in the Olympics is contested by some NBA team owners because they’re afraid their star players will get injured during a game played with smaller compensation compared with their NBA salaries. (Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban did not mince words on this topic. He said: “I can’t think of anything more ridiculous and stupid than giving away the best assets from a for-profit business to somebody else to make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.”) So, when Coach K inherited Team USA, there were already underlying challenges, and the dilemma was how to instill pride and purpose in his players when NBA owners weren’t confident they should be there. In a short amount of time, he had to get the players to trust him, and he had to be a strong enough leader to earn that trust. (He once said, “In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.”) How did he do it? He didn’t just get his players to play well, he got them to believe in the reason they were there. And buoyed by that belief, Team USA defeated Spain 118-107 to win gold.

So, what’s the message? Coach K was head coach at Duke for 42 seasons and has a 1,202-367 record with five national championships and 13 Final Four appearances to his name. You’d think a coach with this kind of Hall of Fame career would say winning is everything. But here’s one final quote from Coach K that speaks to the why behind his leadership: “You have to work hard at staying in contact with your friends, so your relationships will continue and live on,” he said. “Friendships, along with love, make life worth living.”

Coach K presenting Dalton MacAfee with annual Coach K West Point student-athlete award. Dalton, an Army Ranger and former captain of West Point Hockey and varsity lacrosse player, is the son of Heisman Trophy finalist and three time Notre Dame All American Ken MacAfee, and nephew of our own Allan Dalton who was a former Boston Celtic draft choice.

Respond to Thoughts on Leadership: Leadership Lessons from Coach K

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