Coach K Demonstrates Winning Leadership

Earlier this week, Michael William “Mike” Krzyzewski known as “Coach K” broke the record for the most wins by an NCAA division 1 basketball coach. Duke’s victory over Michigan State was Coach K’s 903rd win.

While there is a lot of celebrating around this lofty number, I think there is something more important that should be celebrated: How Coach K led his teams and all of the young men that passed through his program over his 30+ years at Duke. Coach K is a great leader.

To give you a sense of his leadership, here’s what a couple of his ex-players have to say about him:

I played for the greatest college coach of all-time. It was an amazing journey.”
-Shane Battier

It’s a dream to play for a guy like that — a guy who’s just a rock, who believes in you every second you’re on the court. I love Coach K. I’d run through a brick wall for him.”
-Jason Williams

Coach K’s style is to empower, challenge, and inspire his players. He recognizes that wins are the byproduct of a team performing at its best. To understand his leadership style, here’s an overview of his philosophy on teams:

“There are five fundamental qualities that make every team great: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring and pride. I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist. Any one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable.”

Here are other quotes from Coach K that are valuable for leaders in any field:

  • “Communication does not always occur naturally, even among a tight-knit group of individuals. Communication must be taught and practiced in order to bring everyone together as one.”
  • “Making shots counts, but not as much as the people who make them.”
  • “When a leader takes responsibility for his own actions and mistakes, he not only sets a good example, he shows a healthy respect for people on his team.”
  • “Too many rules get in the way of leadership. They just put you in a box . . . . People set rules to keep from making decisions.”
  • “Mutual commitment helps overcome the fear of failure—especially when people are part of a team sharing and achieving goals. It also sets the stage for open dialogue and honest conversation.”
  • “Goals should be realistic, attainable, and shared among all members of the team.”
  • “Leaders should be reliable without being predictable. They should be consistent without being anticipated.”
  • “A leader has to be positive about all things that happen to his team. Look at nothing in the past as failure.”
  • “People want to be on a team. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be in a situation where they feel that they are doing something for the greater good.”
  • “During the season, your team should be led with exuberance and excitement. You should live the journey. You should live it right. You should live it together. You should live it shared. You should try to make one another better. You should get on one another if somebody’s not doing their part. You should hug one another when they are. You should be disappointed in a loss and exhilarated in a win. It’s all about the journey.”

The bottom line: Leadership is not about wins, it’s about helping your people become winners

Written by 

I am an experience management transformist, helping organizations improve business results by engaging the hearts and minds of their customers, employees, and partners. My "job" is Head of the Qualtrics XM Institute. The Institute is still being established, but our goal is to help organizations around the world thrive by mastering Experience Management (XM). As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. Prior to joining Qualtrics, I was managing partner of Temkin Group (leading CX research, advisory, and training firm), co-founder and chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (, and a VP at Forrester Research. I'm a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Check out my LinkedIn profile:

2 thoughts on “Coach K Demonstrates Winning Leadership”

  1. Great leadership tips, it takes a great leader to be as successful as coach K has been, and it’s amazing his accomplishments because he is a strong leader. When someone leads successfully it is very easy to get people to follow because they do it when they WANT to, not when they feel like the HAVE to.

  2. Thanks for the great post. Some people think that sports metaphors are over used. Being a fan I think that’s just because sports metaphors work out so well 🙂

    Great leaders not only bring out the best in people, but they inspire them to go beyond the limits they perceive themselves as having.

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