Leadership Lessons from World-Class Coaches: Mike Krzyewski of Duke University and Pat Summit of the University of Tennessee Demonstrate How a Philosophy of Practice Can Generate Team Resilience and Exceptional Results

By Zauderer, Donald G. | The Public Manager, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Leadership Lessons from World-Class Coaches: Mike Krzyewski of Duke University and Pat Summit of the University of Tennessee Demonstrate How a Philosophy of Practice Can Generate Team Resilience and Exceptional Results


Zauderer, Donald G., The Public Manager


"I don't look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball."--Mike Krzyzewski

Each college basketball season draws millions of Americans into a compelling drama that culminates in March Madness. At the center of the drama are the coaches striving for a championship season. Pat Summitt, Mike Krzyzewski, and Gary Williams are all expected to field highly competitive teams year after year. Retired icons, such as Dean Smith and John Wooten, are remembered for their lifetime achievements in winning championships. These coaches have written books describing how they apply their craft as leaders of student-athletes. Emerging leaders in all fields can reflect on the ideas and instructive examples in these books to develop their own philosophy of practice. People interested in leadership are intrigued by two basic questions: How do these great coaches amass winning records year after year? What does their leadership philosophy teach us about how to build high-performing teams?

This article shares and interprets important leadership lessons culled from the books of two of these extraordinary coaches, Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) of Duke University and Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee. Although their personalities and styles differ in many respects, each has a philosophy of practice that generates overall team resilience and exceptional results--a philosophy that can be applied to your leadership needs, as well.

Coach K has been at Duke University for twenty-six years and has ten Final Four NCAA tournament appearances and three national championships. Under Coach K, the Duke Blue Devils have posted a 680-191 record (a .781 winning percentage). He has been National Coach of the Year twelve times and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. Only two of his players who stayed for four years failed to graduate. Coach K's book, Leading with the Heart, renders insight into how he generates energy, loyalty, and commitment from his players.

In thirty-two years at the University of Tennessee, Pat Summitt--the winningest coach in basketball history--has amassed a record of 913-177 (an .838 winning percentage). Under her leadership, the Lady Vols have reached the Final Four sixteen times and won the national title on six different occasions. She was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000. Every Lady Vol who has completed her eligibility at Tennessee has received her degree or is in the process of doing so. Summitt's book, Reach for the Summit, provides a rich set of guidelines on how to evoke passionate commitment from players.

These coaches have unique philosophies comprising fundamental beliefs, concepts, and attitudes on how to succeed as a coach or leader. Both are deeply committed to certain principles of thought and action and are constantly refining the means by which they put them into practice. Their philosophies are grounded in the way they envision their purpose at the workplace; understand themselves; evolve as leaders; select, develop, and deploy talent; and turn a group of talented athletes into a high-performing team.

Table 1 shows a leadership framework organized in the form of questions, the answers to which can enhance a leadership practice. The sections that follow describe the leadership philosophy of these coaches.

What Is the "Why" of My Job?

Albert Einstein wrote, "The high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule." Service-oriented leaders exhibit humility and caring. They are humble in the sense of committing themselves to purposes that transcend the achievement of fame and recognition.

Coach Summitt is a George Patton "in your face" type of leader. She is a tough disciplinarian, and players are challenged to endure her demanding training protocol. However, her players also understand at a deep level that she is devoted to helping them mature as individuals and as a team. …

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