For those of you who are familiar with Social Impact Architects, you already know that many of our team members are graduates of Duke University. So, we were really excited last week when Coach K coached his final home game to a packed house at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And, while we would have loved a win, Coach K showed his strength as a leader: he admitted defeat, saying, “The season isn’t over.” And, if I were a betting person, I would bet that there could be a silver lining to this loss.

Our dear friend and thought leader, Sanyin Siang, Executive Director for the Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, wrote this amazing piece on Coach K’s leadership lessons in 2015 after the NCAA Final Four Tournament. After all we have been through in the pandemic, her reflections on Coach K and the secrets to building a team are more relevant today than it was then. The lessons are applicable to our social sector work, especially as we coach teams inside our offices and outside in the community. I read it often to remind myself of the lessons I learned at Duke about leadership.

The week of the NCAA Final Four Tournament, I walked over to Cameron Indoor Stadium. Standing in the Hall of Honor, I got goosebumps when I saw how far we have come and what we stand for beyond basketball, beyond sports – character, teamwork, relentless pursuit of excellence, and using our talents in the service of society.

During my visit, I also saw Coach K. He showed me a picture of himself as a young cadet at West Point. He looked no different from today – earnest gaze, down to earth affability, and unwavering sense of purpose. Coach and the team’s history and their return to Indianapolis for the Final Four this weekend, sparked reflection on what he has taught me about leadership over the years.

Ten years ago, we started up the Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center (COLE) at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business to empower today’s leaders of consequence through knowledge and connections. And while we have a significant portfolio of research on leading effectively in today’s complex world, we also draw deeply from the innovations that Coach has put into practice on the court and off.

Besides the fundamentals of authenticity and trust, here are 5 leadership lessons that I’ve learned from Coach K:

Make people feel you, not just understand you.

In organizations, it’s easy to operate purely in the cerebral realm – and focus on smart-sounding words, data, and numbers. While processes, information, and metrics are important, they are insufficient for seeding deep-rooted understanding and for inspiring. I’ve seen how Coach consistently illustrates points with stories, videos, and symbols because in order for a message to stick, it also has to have emotional resonance. For example, to illustrate the importance of playing for Team USA, he took the USA Men’s Basketball Team to Ellis Island and walked them through the history of a place that had deep significance for our country. He also uses the image of the 5-finger fist to symbolize the power of teamwork. And because music can also bring people emotionally to where you need them to be, he couples pop songs to the videos he creates for the team.

Be responsive to the short-term goals, but never lose sight of your long-term mission.

In one of our earliest conversations, I remember Coach telling me that it’s not just about the Xs and Os. “Winning basketball games is important, but the most important things are how you take care of your family and your people.” As I’ve gotten to know Coach, I realized that there is a larger mission to Duke basketball than winning games. Working in an educational institution, Coach K sees himself as a teacher of leadership and coaching is a domain where he puts that into practice. His is about people development. I see how his players come back and seek advice because of the long-term mentoring relationship and trust he has built with them. Shane Battier and Matt Christensen have shared with me how they are still applying much of what he has taught them in their lives after playing for Duke.

Empower others to scale and sustain your impact.

A challenge of today’s workplace is the door of revolving talent throughout the ranks. People leaving can keep good ideas and projects from continuing or scalingIn college basketball, that revolving door can be 1-4 years. So, Coach K creates an infrastructure in which the members of the team are connected not just to him, but to each other, to the managers, and to the assistant coaches. Different people throughout the organization convey the same messages, and everyone shares and contributes ideas across the board. Because of this type of connectivity, the culture, values, and best practices belong to the entire team and stay in place even when individuals leave. And on the court, because the game is so fast-paced and chaotic, he hones his players’ instincts and confidence to make decisions without having to go through him. I remember, in an open practice, seeing him turn his back a lot on a particular player. The player would look over to Coach right before making a shot or a move. Decisions on the court, as in our everyday organizations, don’t have the time to run up and down a chain of command. So Coach turned his back on the player whenever the latter looked over because he needed that player to feel confident and empowered to make decisions.

Meet your people where they are.

It’s easy for those in positions of power to falsely assume that followers should adjust to them. Coach K takes a different perspective. He says that a leader should be careful not to have everyone adjust to him or her. It’s about adjusting to each other. Put this in context of one of the challenges in the corporate world – leading and working across multiple generations from Millennials to Baby Boomers. Coach K has noted that the age span between him and the players whom he coaches widens each year. How does he stay relevant? He takes the time to know them, the issues they wrestle with, the music they listen to and the things that have street cred with them. He meets them where they are and uses his understanding to build credibility and trust with them. He also stays away from labeling people and their capabilities so he can unlock a broader range of their talent and tailor the strategy to the fuller potential of everyone on the team.

Your platform is a gift – use it wisely.

The more that I know Coach, the more I’m discovering how he uses the attention that he draws to cast visibility on key societal issues. For example, he is a tireless warrior in the war on cancer, serving as co-chair of C-Change, a tri-sector collaborative organization started by President George and Barbara Bush, and devoting time to the Jimmy V Foundation and Duke Children’s Hospital. He never forgot where he came from and those who have helped him along the way, including both his mom and the inner city Chicago community center that positively shaped his childhood. So, he created the Emily K Center (named after his mom) in downtown Durham to provide long-term educational development for many first-generation college hopefuls. Citizenship is part of his ethos, connected to his West Point roots and so, with the NBA and our US military, he helped create the Hoops for Troops program. In 2004, he partnered with Duke’s Fuqua School of Business to create a think tank center for fostering a deeper understanding of leadership so that we can better develop the next generation of leaders and empower current leaders to influence positive societal change. On a personal level, because of lessons such as this and Coach K’s actions, I’m proud to be a part of a center that bears his name and incorporate these aspects of leadership into our center’s DNA.

We are proud to be part of the Duke family and the belief that all leaders need to be leaders of consequence. Social sector leaders go out on the court every day and play together to create a better community. We’d love to hear about any pointers you have learned as a member of the team.

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