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Coach K’s “Ah-ha moment” and his secret to sustainable success

6 min read


Credit: Ahodges7 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced “sha-SHEF-ski”) is amazing. As Coach K prepares to lead the Duke men’s basketball team to yet another run at the Final Four, consider what he’s already accomplished:

  • Four national championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010),
  • Four gold medals as head coach of USA men’s national team, and
  • 980 career wins (most in NCAA history).

To truly appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishments, look at his 14-page biography on the Duke men’s basketball website.

Coach K’s phenomenal success as a coach and leader begs the question: How does he do it?

Obvious reasons are that he’s talented, disciplined and works hard. A lot of coaches fit that description, though, so there must be something more that differentiates Coach K and provides Duke men’s basketball a sustainable competitive advantage.

Coach K grew up in Chicago. He attended an all-boys Catholic high school then went on to an all-male West Point, where he played basketball under the driven, domineering, perfectionist coach Bobby Knight. He served in the male-dominated U.S. Army.

Coach K’s education took a major turn when having grown up in male-dominated cultures he found himself outnumbered at home by his wife, Mickie, and their three daughters. Every night at dinner, he observed how Mickie and the girls reconnected by sharing the details of their day, including what they did throughout the day and how they felt about it. Whereas guys cut to the chase in conversations, Coach K observed how Mickie and the girls invested time each day to reconnect.

He also observed how attuned Mickie and the girls were to how people felt. Their intuition was like radar. Time and again, Mickie would sense when something was bothering one of Coach K’s players. She was nearly always right so he learned it was wise to follow up and ask the player if something was wrong. Sure enough, something was always amiss and talking about the problem made the player feel, and play, better. When he didn’t follow up, the player would be out of sync with the team and performance suffered.


Coach K’s “ah-ha” moment, his epiphany about the importance of connection and relationships, transformed his coaching style. He began involving Mickie and his daughters in the Duke men’s basketball program. The Krzyzewski women became, in military terms, a reconnaissance team to sense the state of relationships, emotions, the sense of connection, community and unity among the team. They thought of the boys as being extended members of their family. They hugged them (Hugs have been found to boost the trust hormone oxytocin.). As Coach K became more intentional about developing the feeling of connection among the team, he produced superior results.

If you study Coach K’s approach, you’ll see that he clearly articulates what I’ve described as a “Connection Culture” — where shared identity, empathy and understanding move primarily self-centered individuals toward group-centered membership. Great groups always have a strong sense of connection. A few examples of groups with a high degree of connection that I’ve written about include the rock band U2, Pixar Animation, the U.S. Navy under Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark, Starbucks under Howard Behar’s leadership and the turnaround of the Girl Scouts when Frances Hesselbein was CEO.

Scores of research studies have found human connection is necessary to thrive and a lack of connection contributes to anxiety, depression, addiction and pre-mature death. Sadly, America and most affluent nations have become more disconnected over the last half-century. And, unfortunately, most coaches (and leaders in general) are not intentional about developing relationship excellence and a sense of connection, community and unity among the people they lead.

Coach K is an exception.

Consider a few of Coach K’s quotes from a excellent 2006 New York Times article:

  • “Almost everything in leadership comes back to relationships” (from his 2001 book “Leading With The Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies For Basketball, Business, And Life)
  • “When he recruits a player, Krzyzewski tells him, ‘We’re developing a relationship here, and if you are not interested, tell me sooner rather than later.’  That word — relationship — is one he uses frequently.  … [He tells players] ‘If you come here, for however long, you’re going to unpack your suitcase.  We’re going to form a bond, and you’re going to be part of this family.”
  • “Game day is not a day for long, drawn-out speeches. It is a time for interaction.”
  • “Know their names. You know what? Please and thank you go a long way. You can be damn sure that every guy on my team says that. The best way to get better as a team is if everyone has ownership, and if you do these things they will.

The Connection Culture: Vision + Value + Voice

The key to developing connection can be summarized in a simple, easy-to-remember formula: Vision + Value + Voice. When groups of any size, whether a basketball team or a business organization, share a vision that makes them feel proud, when each group member feels valued and that they have a voice to express their ideas and opinions, it creates a connection, a bond, a feeling of unity or esprit de corps.

In groups where connection is high, members give their best efforts (i.e. employee engagement) and they align their behavior with group goals (i.e. strategic alignment). When times get tough, as they always do periodically in life, groups with connection pull together rather than tear one another apart. Connection is the force that differentiates a dog-eat-dog culture from a sled-dog team that pulls together.

Duke’s men’s basketball has developed a sustainable competitive advantage thanks to Coach K and the lessons he’s learned from the women in his life.

On the surface, this sounds easy. It is not. Human beings are complex. They are driven consciously and unconsciously by an infinite variety of past experiences, temperaments, perspectives, and thinking and learning styles. Coach K and his coaching staff, including the Krzyzewski women, have for years been developing ways to connect that include attitudes, language and behaviors. While most coaches and leaders will remain clueless to the power of connection, the Krzyzewskis will continue to refine their methods while adding to Coach K’s legacy and the Duke men’s basketball program’s remarkable record of success.

Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners, speaks, teaches workshops and coaches leaders. He is the author of “Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity” (Thomas Nelson). Follow Stallard on his blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or on LinkedIn.