3 Weeks, 2 Games, 2 Pressers = Leadership Lessons

March 04, 2020

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I have long been a fan of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski or otherwise known to many as "coach K". He has always exhibited strong leadership and teamwork characteristics in building Duke into a basketball powerhouse and sustaining it for a long time, which is difficult to do as new players are continuously flowing through of various ages, capabilities, and sometimes motives. They have been a NCAA basketball force for decades. It's an incredible feat and definitely much to unpack in terms of leadership and change management.

I want to zero in on some recent occurrences, specifically a window of about the last three weeks. Duke beat NC State a few nights back at home 88-69, but a couple of weeks back in February, NC State blew out Duke on their home court 88-66, which was a highly rare in conference loss, especially by 22 points. It was a disappointing loss for Duke, seemingly against a lesser opponent on paper who was having their own struggles coming into that game. It was a surprising loss so of course there were many questions after the loss which were thrown at coach K in the post-game presser.

The post-game presser video is included below, and it is worth watching, as even in defeat, coach K always speaks with high emotional intelligence and wisdom.

He breaks down a couple of key points but there were three key takeaways for me that provide some lessons in leadership for all of us. The third was a blend between the loss and then the recent win a few weeks later.

1. You always have to show up and compete.

Coach K used the analogy of "sometimes you eat a lot, and then you’re not that hungry after." He pointed out it seemed his team didn't show up in the loss and have the "hunger" (or feel the need) to win on this night. And then they faced a more desperate opponent who was hungry and then extremely motivated. In these scenarios, the hungrier team (or person) will always come out on top. "I wish we had come to the dance a little bit better," he stated later in the post-game Q & A.

The key learning point as we have discussed before is showing up first and then staying on point or hungry, whatever you want to call it, to always be competing. It's more than motivation alone which we all know can be fleeting. It is hard to stay motivated consistently, but instead we should find purpose through passion and mission. In the case of Duke, they want to win the ACC title and then go on to win the national championship. That is the mission. On that night, they lost site of the mission and didn't bring the passion, which ties into point 2 below…

2. This game (basketball) is not an X-box game, it's a human being game.

Here the analogy was used to say this game deals with humans and all the complexities (emotions, decisions, mindset, etc) that go with it. It was also a sly reference to the youth and general inexperience of his Duke team. We mentioned the passion and keeping the mission in site, but sometimes the human element gets in the way.

The big piece here is emotion and the human aspect of it. How many times as leaders or in driving change do we forget about this aspect? You can use the X-box analogy as coach K did but also bring it to the office world and substitute PowerPoints and Excel files. The game, regardless of the setting, involves human beings and we need to be cognizant of that. There is a term in sports, "that is why they play the game." It means things can look one way on paper but you still have to go play the game because anything can happen. It's the same in business. Things can look good on paper, but you still need to execute and people (humans) always have a part.

3. We shouldn't overreact with a setback. Stay calm and move forward.

Coach K foreshadowed this one in the post-game after the loss. Some of the reporters made it seem like Duke's season was over, it was so devastating, but coach K put things in perspective, remained calm, and gave his take on why Duke lost and then, more importantly, how they can learn and move forward to prepare for their next game. People were even questioning his coaching ability and whether he still had it after the loss.

It is hard to beat Duke twice in the same season - it has literally happened only a few times in the past couple of decades. NC State tried a few nights back to get the season sweep and the outcome was vastly different, where Duke blew them off the court. Coach K is great at learning and adjusting, and then getting his team prepared. They didn't focus on the previous loss but knew they would have a shot at a rematch a couple weeks later to win and they did.

The lesson here is there will be setbacks. Don't get knocked off course by them, don't internalize them, but instead learn from them, and focus on moving forward. It's a game of continuous improvement. Two games with different outcomes over a couple of weeks with two different post game reflections by coach K. Yet, as always, some great takeaways on leadership and teamwork.

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