But despite my lack of skill in basketball, I've had the good fortune to spend time with Coach K many times during the last decade. For six of those years, I was a board member of the Emily K Center, a college preparedness nonprofit that he founded and named after his mother (Coach K is chairman of the board).
Getting the chance to watch him work with the Duke Blue Devils, basketball staff, friends, and fellow board members taught me some lessons I apply to my business life, far from the court. Here are just a few:
1. Standards Are Contagious. Duke University's basketball team runs on standards -- rather than rules -- that team members set each year. While many of these are basketball-focused, it's clear the overarching theme is that excellence, or at least striving for it, is the expectation. I've witnessed Emily K Center staff members apply these standards. Both explicitly and implicitly, the message is clear: The Center will operate with excellence across all areas of operation. These are not just Coach K's standards -- these are now Emily K Center standards that staff members use for all their decision making.
2. Motivate With the Why. In a lot of meetings, it's tempting to jump into the minutiae, to attack the meeting agenda, make decisions, and move on to the next thing. One of Coach K's strengths is his ability to take a step back, help the group see the big picture, and remind everyone of what we're all working to achieve. It's quite motivating. And while it's no surprise that the winningest college coach of all time would be a great motivator, what I took from this lesson isn't about Coach K. It's about the way group members feel when he does it. Periodically reminding people of the "why" is a skill any leader can use to motivate others.
3. It's Always a Team Sport. While basketball has only five players on the court at a time, if you spend any time around a major program, you'll see how many people are really on that team. Coaches, managers, trainers, doctors, operations staff, cleaning staff, and others. What I've seen in my interactions with Coach K is his knowledge of (and interest in) the roles played by people outside the limelight. Coach K also knows that a team doesn't operate at a high level unless everyone plays their role. After all, if each role wasn't important, it wouldn't (or shouldn't) exist. So if the role is important, the person playing that role deserves your respect.
4. Don't Be Afraid to Lead. There's a lot of talk on social media these days about "imposter syndrome," where someone in a leadership role doesn't feel like they are good enough to be in their position. It's a real thing, and I've felt it myself more than once. When you see Coach K now -- with his five national championships, his Olympic medals, and all the other accolades lining the walls of his office -- it's easy to forget he started as a new coach for the U.S. Army. It's also easy to forget that after three years at Duke, many fans wanted him fired. I once asked him how he recruited team members in 1981, before any of the victories. His answer? "Exactly as I do today. Tell them the truth on where you're working to go next." In other words, he accepted the leadership role and shared his vision long before it became obvious he would achieve such great success.
5. Just Pass the Ball! Now this is one I'd hear a lot from Coach K if I actually played for him. As he enters his final season, he's passing more and more to Jon Scheyer, the head-coach-in-waiting, and the rest of his staff. But this is the continuation of a process he began a decade ago. No one player, no one staff member, can or should do it all. To be successful, each person needs to get a chance to have the ball and do what they do best. Moving the ball leads to easy scores.
6. This All Applies to Work. It's clear to me that all of these lessons apply to my life. Certainly, it's occurred to Coach K as well. That's probably why he has the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke's Fuqua School of Business and why he's written books like Leading With the Heart and The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team. It's tempting to believe this is all just about sports. But for me and so many others, Coach K's lessons are about much more than basketball.