leadership advice

Get The Right People On The Bus: Leadership Advice from Duke Coach Mike K

Mike Krzyewski has the most wins of any coach in men’s division I college basketball. He also just won his 5th NCAA championship, so he knows a thing or two about team building and leadership.

I was privileged to hear Coach K speak at the Envestnet Advisor Summit 2015, held last week in warm and sunny Chicago.  His comments are summarized here based on the most popular tweets sent out during his presentation.

Coach K related a story about something his mother told him before his first day at school.  She said that he should be sure to get on the right bus.  He thought she meant the bus he took to school. But what she meant was that he needs to connect with the right people and stick with them.  Get in with good people and take those people with you on your bus and you can’t go wrong was her message.

Coach K showed the audience his hand and counted off five fingers.  These five fingers need to work together to be an effective team.  Without each one, everything could fall apart.

As one  of the most successful sports coaches in the world, Coach K has developed a wealth of advice on leadership and team building.  If only we could be as successful in business as Coach K has been in basketball!

This one seems like a no-brainer, but there are still people out there who do not take it seriously.  Coach K told us about coaching the great Michael Jordan on the 1992 Men’s Olympic Basketball team (the ‘Dream Team’).  He referred to Jordan as ‘god’ and admitted to being a bit intimidated as a college coach now having to manage the greatest players in the world.  Yet, Jordan came to him and said “Coach, could you please help me work on my defense?”  Jordan showing him that kind of respect went a long way towards making Coach K feel comfortable in his new environment.

Trying to control a team made up of some of the biggest egos around can be a nightmare, especially if communication lacks honesty.  Coach K requires that every team member pledge to always tell the truth.

One of the management techniques Coach K uses is to avoid rules.  “Rules need to be constantly enforced,” he commented.  Instead he has his team agree to uphold mutually agreed-upon standards.  Everyone is responsible for maintaining the team standards, which makes it a bottom-up approach.

The coach insists that every player take an oath never to be late to practice. It is not a rule. It is one of his team standards that everyone must live up to.

At the first meeting of the 2008 US Olympics Men’s Basketball Team, Coach K asked each player to suggest a standard (not a rule) that everyone should follow in order to build a cohesive team.  Lebron James suggested “No Excuses”.  This meant that they would never make excuses for any mistake or for a loss.  They would accept responsibility for their performance.

This doesn’t have much to do with leadership skills, but I thought it was a cool quote.  Coach K was said that when these guys get focused on a goal, nothing could stop them.

You need to set your team’s expectations.  Very few sports teams go undefeated.  Very few business teams experience nothing but success.  Most teams have to weather losses and tough times and come out together on the other side.

His closing anecdote was about the eighth-ranked player on the 2015 Duke team.  Coincidentally, he averaged just eight minutes a game this season, which is not very much.  But he was only a freshman and had a lot to learn from his teammates.

What this kid managed to do was to fire up the entire team in the second half of the championship game against Wisconsin to rally from behind and win.  Coach K, who has seen a lot of great basketball, said it was the most amazing thing he has ever seen.

The moral of the story was to never forget that everyone on your team has a contribution to make. Some are large and some are small but all are important.  A leader should facilitate such that even the lowest player can make an impact.

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