Leadership Lessons from Coach K

Mike Krzyzewski discusses culture and flexibility with Dean Bill Boulding

September 11, 2018
Leadership, Management


Mike Krzyzewski has a reputation for strong leadership, but he also believes in being flexible.

“You have to adapt to the current culture of the business you’re in,” he told Dean Bill Boulding.

The Duke men’s basketball coach sat down with the dean of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business as part of Fuqua’s Distinguished Speakers Series. Krzyzewski revealed leadership lessons he has learned from almost four decades at Duke that have netted five national championships.

Maintain intensity by doing what you love

Krzyzewski said he’s been doing what he loves since the age of 16.

“I don’t know how you ever burn out doing what you love,” he said. “I think it’s impossible. In fact, your fire grows if you’re doing it for that, because you learn more about what you love and you know there’s even more to learn.”

Krzyzewski said that even though he dreamed of national titles, he never set materialistic goals for his career.

“I want to do what I like to do,” the 71-year-old said. “I think doing what you love keeps you young.”

Hire for the culture you want

Krzyzewski said he only hires his former players to his coaching staff – but that doesn’t mean any former player is an automatic hire.

“I have to have seen something in them, that they could coach,” he said. “Be careful about who you hire as staff. Never hire just because of friendship, or some kind of perceived loyalty because someone’s your friend. You can hire a friend who’s qualified, but surround yourself with people that will complement the strengths and weaknesses that you have.”

Once he does make a hire, Krzyzewski said he gives them a lot of freedom.

“The longer I’ve coached, the more I believe in more voices,” he said. “One person shouldn’t dominate, or you get tired of that voice.”

The hires you make also determine your culture, Krzyzewski said.

“The culture is taught by the people living in the culture,” he said. “For culture to really be substantive and sustain, you need to empower people at every level. Everyone is important, everyone has ownership and everyone has the opportunity to lead.”

Have standards, not rules

Standards, Krzyzewski said, give you the latitude to lead.

“I understand rules up to a point, but standards are really rules that you own,” Krzyzewski said. “You try to develop a climate, an environment where this is the way you live, you respect once another. The thing I hate the most about rules is that they’re not yours. They’re imposed upon you and there’s not much latitude.”

Krzyzewski said flexibility is a key skill for leaders.

“As a leader, you’ve got to be careful not to rule yourself into a box where you don’t have the flexibility to lead,” he said. “That doesn’t mean don’t have rules, but rules should not take the place of sound judgment. As a leader, I’d rather have more flexibility.”

Create ownership

When Krzyzewski coached a U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team full of star professional players, he didn’t tell them to leave their egos at the door. Bring them, he said, but bring them all together under the same umbrella.

This, Krzyzewski said, is how he creates ownership in a project.

“With any group that I’m in, I don’t want them playing for me, or for Duke,” he said. “I want them to be Duke. Get ownership. It sounds simple, but it’s amazingly strong.”

That approach has its roots in advice from Vic Bubas, who coached the Blue Devils in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Don’t look down the road, build your own thing and only look at what you’re doing,” Krzyzewski said Bubas told him.

That focus, Krzyzewski said, is why he doesn’t get eaten up with Duke’s Tobacco Road rivalry with North Carolina, but focuses on measuring up to his own expectations.

“Be competitive,” he said, “with the excellence you’re trying to achieve.”

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