Leadership Lessons from Coaches Who Have Won Championships

Successful sports coaches offer many lessons for managersExecutives have long been fascinated by winning coaches and championship teams, and there are striking parallels between leadership in sports and in organizations.

Whether in the boardroom or the playing field, both disciplines require:

  • Intense competition.
  • The training and developing of talent.
  • Detailed planning and preparation.
  • Motivating teams and organizations.

Sports dynasties — from basketball’s Chicago Bulls of the 1990s to New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team — are “the most relevant model for peak performance in business,” according to Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. Why? Because their cultures embrace teamwork, passion, inclusion, motivation, belief in self, a sense of community and other intangible values.

Here’s a sampling of principles and practices from legendary coaches that apply beyond the sports world:

Redefining success

Joe Torre, the former New York Yankees manager who guided his baseball teams to four World Series championships, advises executives to look at how they define success. By winning? By cutting deals? By maximizing profits?
In his audio book “Ground Rules for Winners,” Torre says success is the daily drive and commitment to cultivating your talents, living up to the highest standards and working to “the best of your ability.”

We wake up each day. We take small steps and struggle through setbacks. We give it our all as we grind toward long-term goals. And when we fulfill our potential as individuals and team members, he says, the winning will come.

If Torre had defined success only as winning, he says, he would have been a failure before the Yankees had hired him. But persevering through bad times and believing in himself allowed him to realize his dream of winning the World Series.

Celebrating the victories of others

Famed basketball coach Phil “Zen Master” Jackson has been on the global sports stage for decades, winning 11 National Basketball Association championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Surprisingly, he admits that he feels uncomfortable in the media glare.

While some coaches enjoy winning trophies and seeing themselves on television, Jackson — a devotee of Native American spiritual practices — shies away from the spotlight. Rather, he finds the greatest joy in seeing his players bond and put their hearts and souls into a greater mission than themselves, according to his autobiography, “Eleven Rings: the Soul of Success.”

“Once you’ve experienced that,” Jackson writes, “it’s something you never forget.”

Practicing collaborative management

In an earlier era, coaches and executives ruled by intimidation and ran their organizations with iron fists. The command-and-control school of management — what the late San Francisco 49ers football coach Bill Walsh called “the old bludgeon approach” — dominated sports and many organizations.

Today’s sports and organizational leaders are less likely to be dictators, and more likely to be team builders who bring together people in all parts of their organization. The most successful and resourceful coaches practice democratic decision-making, develop their players, build a strong system and motivate the team to think and execute as a unit.

“The real task in sports,” Walsh wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “is to bring together groups of people to accomplish something.”

Engaging in heartfelt leadership

Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University men’s basketball team believes that his late mother, Emily, taught him the key values to success and winning several NCAA championships.

In his autobiography, “Leading with the Heart,” Krzyzewski writes that his passionate commitment to coaching and life came from his mother’s commitment to her family. His unconditional support of his players and others came from her undying support of him. His courage to leap past failure also came from his mother.

To this day, Krzyzewski brings his mother’s rosary to basketball games, placing the rosary in his shirt pocket. He says a prayer to his mother’s memory, and asks God to “help me do my best … and help me lead with my heart.”

Edward Iwata is a freelance journalist and editor in Silicon Valley, California, and the author of “Fusion Entrepreneurs: Cross-Cultural Execs & Companies.”

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