Like a lot of leaders, Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors basketball team--the favorite to win this year's NBA title--loves to read. But you won't find basketball or even sports books on his night stand. So far this year, he has read articles about Al Pacino, Ronald Reagan's astrologer, wrongful incarceration, and musical duo Hall and Oates. Next on his list is an article about the man who plays Big Bird on "Sesame Street."
What does this successful, 49-year-old leader gain from this habit? "He likes to remind the players that there's more to life than basketball," Warriors general manager Bob Meyers tells the Wall Street Journal.
In other words, it's a way for Kerr to model work-life balance to his team, to keep them loose. It's no secret employees in all fields perform better when they are having fun, and when their sense of play is set free.
And if you dive deeper into Kerr's habits, you find plenty of clues as to how he cultivates creativity. He is precise not only about what he reads, but how he reads. The Warriors PR staff doesn't just select the articles; they print them out on actual paper. Kerr reads them the old-fashioned way.
Why does this matter? For one thing, many studies suggest you'll retain more of what you read if you print it out, as opposed to reading it digitally.
For another, reading becomes more of a solitary activity when you are only reading--that is, when you are unplugged, not connected to the Internet or outside world. "When alone, we have great access to the unconscious, to unfettered, wandering, ruminative thinking," writes Joshua Wolf Shenk in "Powers of Two," his exploration of creativity and innovation in duos.
It's no accident people often feel at their most creative not only when reading, but when walking, driving, or showering. These activities, notes psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, known for his work on "flow" states, involve semiautomatic behaviors; they take up just the right amount of attention, leaving your mind free to roam and connect the creative dots that you couldn't connect when you were actively trying to connect them.
For Kerr, it is easy to trace a line between his eclectic reading habits and in-game success. He has always been an eclectic learner. Kerr won five titles as a backup player. He then worked as the Phoenix Suns general manager and an NBA broadcaster, using those positions to learn more about the sport from different perspectives. He became adept at picking other people's brains to solve problems.
It's one reason his best moves as the Warriors coach were arguably his first ones: Hiring well-regarded assistants Ron Adams and Alvin Gentry to run his defense and offense. Both assistants, and their abilities to implement new systems, were keys to the Warriors' great leap forward this year: The team won 67 games in the regular season, a 16-game improvement.
Though it was Kerr's first year as head coach, his ability to synthesize learning from outside sources has been a hallmark of his career, whether those sources are reading material or other winning coaches.
In his 15 seasons as an NBA player, Kerr played for elite coaches such as Cotton Fitzsimmons (832 career wins), Lenny Wilkens (1,332 wins), Phil Jackson (1,155 wins) and Gregg Popovich (1,022 wins). So he knows how great coaches operate. Part of what he has learned is the importance of perspective: Maintaining a sense of humor and playfulness by showing your team that, indeed, there is more to life than basketball.
Earlier this season, Kerr told the New York Times that this levity is something he gleaned from Fitzsimmons. "He just had us laughing all the time, and that was a pretty powerful thing," Kerr said. This is why Kerr and his assistants often interlace game films--used by the team to prepare for opponents--with bloopers and jokes.
From Wilkens, he learned a lesson any entrepreneur can relate to: That it's better to "run six or eight things really well, instead of 20 things in a mediocre fashion," he said to the Times.
Kerr is amassing lessons not only from his outside reading but also from fellow coaches. And what he's doing mirrors the "networked minds" approach many entrepreneurs have used to solve problems. Rather than relying on just one person's expertise--his own--Kerr is attempting to attack the challenges of coaching with multiple perspectives and mental strengths, all corralled for the sake of addressing a single mission: how to win more basketball games.
In "The Creator's Code," Amy Wilkinson describes how the founders of Jawbone used this "networked minds" approach to escape the early failures of their flagship health-tracking bracelet. The Jawbone founders didn't simply try to fix the issues on their own; they organized a concerted attempt to reach out to anyone they knew who could help--and to bring their knowledge to bear on the problem.
The big idea here is that cognitive diversity can lead to breakthrough results in all fields. Wilkinson also cites the famous Bletchley Park code breakers of World War II. They "launched what today we would call the ultimate hack-a-thon," she writes. The combination of experts--linguists, military strategists, mathematicians, historians, engineers, cryptographers, crossword-puzzle experts--all combined their skills to solve a problem that would likely have baffled any single area of expertise.
Kerr isn't cracking wartime code, but his job does require him to outthink and outmaneuver opponents. If he keeps up the good work, the Warriors might win their first title in 40 years. And if they do, it will be in no small part to Kerr's ability to sharpen his expertise in his own profession--and to remain mindful of all the humor and life that exist outside of it.