March is my favorite time of year because it is college basketball tournament time. I’m an avid college basketball fan in general and a fan of my alma mater, Duke University, in particular. When I started watching Duke back in 1986, Mike Krzyzewski had done well just by making it to the NCAA men’s national championship game. But no one knew back then that it was only the beginning of his Hall of Fame career, and he would come to be known simply as “Coach K.”
I was lucky enough that Duke went to the Final Four every year I was there, culminating in their first national championship my senior year, in 1991. Since that time, Coach K’s portfolio of successes now includes four national championships in Division I men’s college basketball, eight trips to the championship game, eleven trips to the Final Four, thirteen ACC championships, numerous national coach of the year awards, the record for most wins in Division I men’s college basketball, and leading the men’s national basketball team to two gold medals at the Olympics. Regardless of whether you love Duke or hate them, Mike Krzyzewski’s resume demonstrates that he has been one of the most effective leaders in any field. In my years of watching his teams, here are some of the things I have noticed that are central to his success (plus his own relevant quotes, taken from his website):
He adjusts to team strengths. “I try to see each new season as a new challenge because I have a new team to work with.” Man-to-man defense is one of the hallmarks of a Coach K team year in and year out. But his offensive strategy is different every year to accommodate the talent he has. In Krzyzewski’s book Leading With the Heart, retired 19-year NBA veteran Grant Hill said that Krzyzewski coached the team differently every year he was at Duke. And when he coached the Olympic team to the gold medal in London, he would use LeBron James and Kevin Durant at center, with offensive success, when they normally play the small forward position.
He supports a culture of communication. “Effective teamwork begins and ends with communication. Communication must be taught and practiced in order to bring everyone together as one.” Every coach in every sport is yelling feedback to his players from the sidelines – that’s universal. But in addition, Duke’s players huddle up at nearly every break in the action; not every team does that. They constantly communicate with each other, offering feedback on what they can improve on as well as praise for what is working. They adjust as needed to maximize their performance as a team.
He cares about the members of his team. “Making shots counts, but not as much as the people who make them.” Andre Dawkins is a current Duke player and a redshirt senior. His circumstances are unusual in that he took his year off before his senior year, and not because of injury but to deal with his depression that followed the death of his sister. Instead of losing his scholarship, Coach K gave him the option to rejoin the team when he was ready. As Krzyzewski said about Dawkins in an article in Sports Illustrated, “He went into some emotional ups and downs. But he is in a much better place. He has his arms around his life right now.”
He creates a vision and inspires others to achieve it. “In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. You don’t instantly have trust, it has to be earned.” In what some consider the most exciting college game ever to be played, Duke and Kentucky met in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament in 1992. Kentucky went up 103-102 with only 2.1 seconds on the clock, and Duke having to go the full length of the court after a timeout. The first thing Coach K told his players was, “We’re gonna win.” Grant Hill threw the ball the length of the court to Christian Laettner who took the winning shot. Duke went on to win the national championship again that year.
To me that play summarizes all the tenets that have supported Coach K’s success. He understood the strengths on his team and utilized them. From a culture of caring and communication, he and his players had relationships of support and trust for each other. Because of this trust, when he set the vision – which some might have seen as impossible – they believed it, and executed as a team to meet it. Though it is my love of college basketball that keeps me coming back to March Madness year after year, I am inspired by the examples of powerful leadership that I see within it.
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