Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Interview with Coach K on Leadership
December 16, 2011
by: Loren Gary

I recently came across a fascinating interview that academics Sim Sitkin and Richard Hackman conducted with legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (“Developing Team Leadership: An Interview with Coach Mike Krzyzewski,” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2011, vol. 10, No. 3, 494–501). The conversation focused on recruiting and developing team leaders, creating a context for team success, and sustaining one’s own leadership capacity. I came away impressed with the broad applicability of Krzyzewski ‘s insights. Here are a few excerpts

On walking “the fine line between encouraging individuals “to develop new capabilities as leaders and accepting their liabilities: “I tried to meet twice a month . . . just empathizing with them, not trying to get them to be anybody different. I was concerned about insisting “You need to be this leader or that leader.” I wanted them to be a player too, and I didn’t want leading to conflict with their natural playing abilities. . . . We want to keep their strengths while working on their leadership.

On the connection between leadership roles and demonstrated talent: In some organizations you only listen to talent. You’ve got to be talented before you can give advice or be recognized. We’ve tried not to have that culture. If you have a guy go from freshman to senior, sometimes the freshman that you bring in is better than the senior. It wasn’t always that way; it used to be that if you’re an upper classman, you should always beat out the younger guy. . . . So how is that senior guy going to be a leader when he is not the best player.
“We had a walk-on who became a scholarship player and was a 5-year player, Jordan Davidson. Guys listened to him more than anybody because he had established himself. So I think some of it is credibility.

On coaching your top performers: “I’ve found that when I am coaching my Duke team, I need to be the best player’s best friend. Being the best player is a lonely position. Even though you get accolades, no matter how good of a team you have, there is always some level of jealousy. Always. Because you’re competitive. A little bit of it is not bad. But I want to make sure that I’m connected with that guy because in a tense moment he also might produce better knowing that he’s not out there alone.”

On dealing with so-called derailer, who is undermining the morale or effectiveness of your team—do you try to save him or get rid of him: “You save him. With the Olympic team, we would never select them because you don’t have enough time to help them. It’s a different mission when you’re coaching a college team. A kid can get sidetracked, and he might be a derailer because of insecurity or for any 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. Part of it can be redefining what success is for that kid.

On ensuring that minor problems don’t become major ones, distracting the team from its focus on achieving collective goals: “I continue to pay close attention to the team’s context. Sometimes I’ll meet with my team or my staff and I’ll say, ‘I want you to think about irritants. We’ll have a meeting on irritants and let’s try to get rid of as many irritants as possible. In other words, let’s not let Duke beat Duke because every day we can’t stand something.’ I try to make sure, even with the Olympic team, ‘Ok, let’s have a meeting. What’s bugging us right now . . . food, whatever? Nothing? Good, let’s go.’ You can lead better if everybody is not distracted.”

On ensuring your own continuous development as a leader: I’ve learned so much from getting outside of my area. I think you need to get involved—whether it be a charity, a hospital, or working with a kid’s group—to keep actively learning. If you look, you’ll see natural leadership happening all around you all the time. You can learn about being a better leader from everybody. You can go and study an orchestra. You can go study a basketball team, a business, or whatever. . . . In developing leadership, you’re not just helping a young kid on your team become a better leader. By attempting to teach that person, you’re developing your.

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