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Developing team leadership: An interview with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski

November 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

Embarking on his 31st season as head basketball coach at Duke -- three victories away from becoming the most winning men's basketball coach in NCAA Division I history --  Mike Krzyzewski offered his thoughts recently on leadership in an interview for the  journal Academy of Management Learning and Education. The interview was conducted by Sim B. Sitkin, a professor of management at Duke, and J. Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard.
 
The interview appears in the September-November issue of the journal, which is published quarterly by the Academy of Management, the largest organization in the world devoted to management teaching and research.
 
In the excerpts below, the coach talks about lessons he learned from such top stars as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant, as well as the hundreds of college players he's worked with over more than three decades.
 
Players in top-ranked basketball teams, whether Duke or the Olympic teams you have coached, also are composed of high-level stars, people who are used to having the planets rotate around them. How do you deal with this?
 
Character is a significant part of our recruiting. Grades too, of course, but character is probably the main thing. I want to see that the kid is someone who will listen to his coach, that he has shown respect to his parents and other authorities he has dealt with, and that he is willing to learn...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. Because that best player is going to have a lot of influence, you want to make sure he comes in that you can have a good relationship with him.
 
What do players who are true stars need from their coach?
 
With the Olympic team, Kobe Bryant told my youngest daughter an interesting thing. "Since I was in high school, nobody has tried to motivate me, they just pay me." But, he said, "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.
 
How about with well-established, high-experienced players?
 
I remember when I was an assistant coach on the Olympics Dream Team that won the gold medal in Barcelona 1992. We had Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen. I'm at my first practice, and Jordan is the best player. He is also from North Carolina and I'm from Duke...After the first practice I'm having a drink of soda and Jordan walks towards me. I knew he was going to bust my chops, you know, do some Duke/Carolina stuff. But he comes up to me and he says, "Coach, I'd like to work on some individual moves for about a half hour. Would you please work with me?" And so we worked for a half hour and at the end he said, "Coach, thanks a lot." Of all the things I learned on that trip, that meeting was the most important. I still get chills thinking about it...It's a powerful thing when a person who is in Jordan's position does things like that to create an environment that's conducive to success.
 
How do you handle "derailers," people who cause problems no matter what team they're on -- be it in business or athletics or music or wherever?
 
You save him...A kid can get sidetracked, and he might be a derailer because of insecurity or for any of a number of reasons. Saving a kid is important, because it might just be that he lost his starting job or he's discovered that he's not good enough no matter how hard he works...Before, his idea of success was, "I'm going to be a pro, I'm going to be a top draft pick," and then all of a sudden, "I'm not even starting on my team. Holy mackerel, my whole life is horrible and I'm going to make it horrible for everyone else."
 
So I would try to counsel him, individually and doing things face to face, not yelling but just saying, "Look, you're not on the team now. I mean, it's not that you're kicked off, but you're not part of us. Why would you do these things? Tell me. I'm going to try to understand. Or do you not know you're doing them?" You deal with it on a one-on-one basis..
 
You are dealing with fast-changing, fishbowl team environments. What do you do to keep all team members on the same page?
 
We try not to have any rules on my teams. I have what I call "standards"...With the Olympic team, I met with the individual stars. I met with Jason Kidd individually and then LeBron, Kobe and Dwayne Wade before we had a collective meeting. I told them, "I'm going to have a meeting tonight, not about offense and defense but about how we're going to live for the next six weeks. I am going to tell you two of the standards that I want. When we talk to each other, we look each other in the eye. That's one. The second one is we always tell each other the truth. If we can do those two things, trust will be developed, which will be the single most important thing for our foundation as a group." And then I said, "You don't have to tell me now, but I would like you to contribute to the meeting and say at least one thing tonight. And whatever you say will become, if everyone agrees, one of our standards."
 
We had a great meting in which we came up with fifteen standards. 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. LeBron said, "No excuses. You know we have the talent. We're playing for the best country. So, no excuses." And that was our first standard. Jason Kidd said, "We shouldn't be late and we should respect one another." I said, "We should respect our opponents because they've been beating us for the last few years. So we should prepare, and we should never have a bad practice." And it went on from there. We never had a guy late, and we never had a bad practice.
 
Media Coverage:
Investor's Business Daily. Management: Help Stellar Performers Keep their Feet on Team Turf. (Monday, November 28, 2011).
washingtonpost.com. On Leadership. Coach K's leadership ABCs. (Thursday, November 17, 2011).

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