5 Leadership Insights From Coach K That Could Work For Any Team

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski describes how emotion and even big egos can bond teams

May 20, 2021

From Olympic gold medals to NCAA championships, Duke University Men’s Basketball Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of the most successful coaches of all time.

But even with more than 45 years of experience, Krzyzewski faced new and daunting challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the world slowed to a near-halt, Krzyzewski led his team through looming uncertainties, like the fate of the season and how to keep players safe and healthy, he told Bill Boulding, dean of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. In a return appearance for Fuqua’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Krzyzewski shared strategies for coaching teams and players that could work for teams of all types.

Create shared ownership
Truly successful teams share a sense of ownership, Krzyzewski said. Belonging means more than simply being on the roster, he said. Each member of the team must be emotionally invested in the same goal and must understand what being part of a team means at its core.

“We have to create an environment where you are Duke Basketball,” he said.

Krzyzewski uses guest speakers, listening sessions and team-building gatherings at his own home so members of the organization feel like part of a family, he said.

Tailor coaching to the person
Adaptability and sensitivity are critical to leadership, Krzyzewski said. The way to coach each person depends on their personality and the situation they are in. Effective leaders think about each individual and tailor their coaching approach, he said.

“It’s up to the leader to get the message across. You have to figure it out,” Krzyzewski said.

We’re only going to win if we win together.
Mike Krzyzewski, Head Coach, Men's Basketball
Duke University

Sometimes this means the message should be delivered by someone else, such as an assistant coach, he said. Krzyzewski also checks in with players and coaches after meetings to see how the message and examples he used were interpreted – or whether some references were too dated for the young players, he joked.

“Those types of honest interactions on a daily basis really build up a great rapport” so that during intense moments in a game, when instant trust and believability really matter for success, those elements are already in place, he said.

Unite big egos
Having coached some of the world’s greatest athletes, including three U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams as the head coach, Krzyzewski must have managed some big egos, Boulding suggested.

Some coaches tell their players to leave their egos at the door, Krzyzewski said, but he is not one of them. Rather than curbing that confidence, Krzyzewski helps players learn how to use it productively, he said. Coaches can succeed by recognizing that passion in individuals and redirecting it so it serves the whole team’s success, he said.“You always want people to use their talents,” Krzyzewski said. “Why would I tell anyone, ‘think less of yourself?’... We’re only going to win if we win together.”

Hear concerns and respond thoughtfully
Krzyzewski, who is also the namesake and executive-in-residence for the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, wields influence far beyond the basketball court.

In 2020, following nationwide protests and discussion about racism in policing, Krzyzewski took time to educate himself about social injustices being highlighted in the news and reflect on the perspectives of colleagues, players and allies, many of whom are Black (see clip above).

“I said, man I’ve missed the boat here,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s a deep feeling here… I’ve got to do something.”

He recorded a short video in support of Black Lives Matter, an anti-racism movement and motto. In the video, which has more than three million views on Twitter, Krzyzewski said supporting Black Lives Matter is not a political statement – it’s a statement in support of fairness and human rights.

“I was so proud that we did it and I can tell you I’m so much closer with my guys now and understand it better,” Krzyzewski said.

Show your emotions
Coaching and leadership require more than creating an image of strength, Krzyzewski said. Sometimes being a strong leader requires connecting on an emotional level, depending on the player, the context of the conversation, and whether your team is winning or losing, he said.

“It doesn’t make a kid bad if he’s more sensitive – then you have to change your delivery,” Krzyzewski said.

Having grown up in rigid, majority-male environments, including Catholic school and the U.S. Military Academy, Krzyzewski said he learn how to open up emotionally as an adult, with encouragement from his all-female household of a wife and three daughters.

“As an adult with [my] family, I learned that it was OK to do that – that in some respects, it was stronger to do it,” Krzyzewski said. “What they would say is, ‘Dad, just be real… that’s all people want.” 

Showing vulnerabilities, crying – “It’s a different definition of strength,” Krzyzewski said.

(cover photo by Duke Photography, copyright Duke University)

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