By: Joseph M. Hoedel, Ph.D.
Provided by: Character Development & Leadership
"My hunger is not for success, it is for excellence. Because when you attain excellence, success just naturally follows."
For the first time in history, professional athletes from each country were allowed to participate in the 1992 Olympic Games. Up until that year, Olympic teams were comprised of amateur athletes. This change meant that in 1992, the Men's Olympic basketball team was selected from NBA All-Stars and the team was dubbed "The Dream Team." As expected, this team won gold, winning their games by an average of 44 points. The 1996 team and the 2000 team also brought home gold. This made sense. The talent in America far exceeded teams from around the world. It was a slam dunk, so to speak. Still, it was clear that other countries were getting better, and in 2004, America failed to win the gold medal in men's basketball for only the fourth time in Olympic history.
Did America lose because they had inferior talent? This is possible, but most agreed that the NBA superstars were over-confident and lacked the preparation to earn the gold medal. Perhaps the Americans just expected to win based off to sheer talent. As individuals, they were stars, but as a team they lacked cohesiveness and chemistry. The bottom line is that Team USA did not play collectively as a team and it cost them. To address the problem, Jerry Colangelo, director of the national team decided that the problem was not the players, but rather the leadership and the approach of Team USA. Of all the coaches on all the levels of basketball, the name at the top of the list was Mike Krzyzewski, the renowned "Coach K" of the Duke Blue Devils. Larry Bird, a member of the original 1992 dream team echoed these sentiments, saying, "This is the type of guy we need. After 2004, we needed a wakeup call and we got ours."
After accepting the position, Coach K's first order of business was to change the entire approach to the Olympics. He selected players who would make a 3-year commitment to the team, not just drop in for the summer of the Olympics. Coach K believes that this commitment is what builds chemistry and trust on a team. He also changed the climate of the team. He spoke to the athletes about core principles of teamwork, sacrifice and trust. "They need to be superstars on their individual NBA teams," he explained. "But on this team, they're not - not one of them is that. There's not one person who should be dominant. The team is dominant." He brought in wounded U.S. soldiers to remind the players who and what they were representing in the Olympics. The players bought into this new concept. Kobe Bryant, a player on Team USA said of Coach K, "He's a great leader. He's a great communicator. He was very clear on what he wanted from us as individuals to make our collective team greater." Another player and captain of the team, Jason Kidd said, "Coach K set the tone from day one. Whether it was Kobe scoring 20 or Kobe scoring 2, we wanted to have the most points as a team and show the world the right way to play the game." Behind the leadership of Coach K and a focused Team USA, America once again took home the gold medal in Beijing, China. He was invited back to coach the 2012 and 2016 Olympic team. With Coach K at the helm, America won three straight Olympic gold medals (2008, 20012 & 2016) and set a standard of excellence.
When not coaching the men's Olympic basketball team, Coach K can be found in Durham, North Carolina, coaching the Duke Blue Devils. He has been a staple at the university for 31 years and his resume is not too shabby. He has led the Blue Devils to five national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, and 12 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season championships. To top it all off, in 2011 he became the winningest coach in NCAA history, exceeding Coach Bob Knight's record of 902 victories. Because of his outstanding leadership, Coach K has received National Coach of the Year honors twelve times. In 2001 Duke University extended him a lifetime contract and even named the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium "Coach K Court."
In his best-selling books, Leading with the Heart and The Gold Standard, Coach K wrote about his leadership principles. The one that he emphasizes more than anything else is relationships, "Almost everything in leadership comes back to relationships." He is careful to use plural pronouns such as "we," "our," and "us" instead of "I," "my," and "me." One of his primary goals as a coach is to create a family environment, and his family includes more than just the players - it includes the entire campus community. Coach K routinely seeks advice from people who might be frequently overlooked by other leaders. He relies on his secretary, the school's sports information director, and the team manager to help him assess the team's strengths and weaknesses and to point out potential problems. His inclusive approach comes from his philosophy that everybody is equal. Simply having the ability to put a basketball through a hoop does not mean that a player is better than someone who cleans the locker room.
Of recruiting players, he says, "We search for good kids with strong character - not necessarily kids with great talent who can play, but great individuals who are willing to be part of a team and are coachable." No matter how much talent a player has, Coach K will not offer him a scholarship if he is disrespectful or rude. Coach K pays close attention to the way a recruit demonstrates respect for his parents. He freely admits, "If a young man rolls his eyes when his mother asks me a question, I'm not sure I'm going to offer him a scholarship." He's been around enough to know that if a student has not learned to respect authority at home, he is not likely to respect other authority figures when he gets to college.
One way that Coach K builds team unity is by creating shared goals. Because each team is unique, each team sets unique goals. These shared goals do not have anything to do with winning a specific number of games. Coach K believes it is much more important to set a standard of excellence. "My hunger is not for success, it is for excellence," he explains. "Because when you attain excellence, success just naturally follows." In other words, winning games and championships is a byproduct of striving to do your best every single day. "If I teach them well, winning games will be a natural result," he said. "If my goal had to be only winning games, I wouldn't be a coach."
Building supportive relationships based on respect takes time. However, once those relationships are in place, Coach K does not hesitate to give honest feedback to his players. As a coach, nothing is more important than being able to communicate openly and honestly with a player at a given moment. "Fellas, I am the truth," he says. "At any time, I can and will tell you where you stand and how you're doing. I'll tell you what you're doing right and I'll tell you when you're screwing up." If he is successful in establishing a trusting environment, players respond positively to his direct approach. Coach K reminds us that leadership isn't just about "I love you" and "Let's hold hands and skip." Sometimes it requires statements like, "Get your rear in gear" and "What the hell are you doing?" As you might expect from a West Point graduate, discipline is an essential part of his success. Coach K says he doesn't understand how discipline has come to have such a negative connotation. "Discipline is doing what you are supposed to do in the best possible manner at the time you are supposed to do it," he says. "And that's not such a bad thing."
Few teams have been able to match Duke's consistent level of success under the leadership of Coach K. His simple formula of preparation, communication, hard work, practice, and focus has built a dynasty at Duke. There is little doubt that he is the driving force behind the reputation Duke basketball has enjoyed for the last quarter century. Former player Christian Laettner agrees. "Coach K has been the one constant excellent thing behind Duke basketball," he says. In a sports world that regularly shows signs of moral decay, Coach K is a shining example of dignity and honesty. He runs a clean program and talks at length about tradition, pride, and character.