Leading with the Heart

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Book Review Leading with the Heart: Coach K's Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life


In the book, Leading with the Heart: Coach K's Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life, Mike Krzyzewski tells of his life story. Krzyzewski, the head coach of Duke Basketball, graduate of West Point Naval Academy, teacher, family man, and friend. His story tells of growing up in a traditional Polish family in Chicago and his family forcing him to attend West Point while playing for Coach Knight. He demonstrates all these factors have led him to be the kind of coach and leader he is today. He believes in working as a whole unit as opposed to each an individual player, being accountable for one another and success not only on the court but also in the classroom. All of these factors have created not only ideal model for any coach, but any business which will guarantee success.

Keywords: Team, Basketball, Leadership, Business

Mike Krzyzewski gives a history of his experiences as: a youth in Chicago, College student at West Point, Coach at Duke University, teacher and family man. He was raised a traditional Polish household where his mother raised both him and his brother while his father worked as an elevator operator. Within this kind of ethnic household it is taught that you work as hard as possible in order to give better opportunities for your children as opposed to what you were given. It was quoted that his parents had little, his mother having only two dresses, while him and his brother had everything. It was just this type of environment which molded him believing the worst thing wasn’t letting himself down, yet letting his parents down. He started his drive towards sports as a “Columbo” at Columbus middle school where he orchestrated organized sports. Even when the schools nuns would not allow his team to participate in CYO, he took it upon himself to contact the teams and organize games.

These different experiences along with family dynamic are what drove him to attend West Point. He did not want to attend, yet went, in essence, to keep his parents happy. His parents wanted him to have the education that they knew they would never be able to afford to give him. Attending West Point created the opportunity for him to blossom the many attributes his parents had seen in him. Although he was reluctant to attend, he ultimately did in order to not disappoint his parents. After he arrived at West Point, it was engrained in him to take responsibility. He was taught this by be able to only respond with three terms: “yes sir, no sir, no excuse sir”. This hit home to him after a fellow student splashed mud on his shoes. He realized that, although he didn’t get his shoes dirty, it was his responsibility to turn around and clean his shoes. This is much what we see in business today. Many are not the direct cause of what takes place, yet we have the responsibility to be proactive in what we can control and if one of us are falters we all falters.

Krzyzewski brings these molding events from his childhood and west point, driving them into his players. He starts his basketball season with a meeting in the locker room, since this is where the team will spend a majority of time within the season. He speaks how each component of the team is critical, wither it is an all star senior, manager, coach, beginning freshman or even the water boy they all play an important role to the team’s success. We need to take this perspective into corporate America.

As a manager, we need to set our examples and show that every person that works for the company regardless of the position: CEO, Controller, Customer Service representative, right down to the cleaning personnel, all which are equally responsible for the success of the company. The point when one employee feels that they are more of an asset to the company than another creates a barrier. This barrier, viewed at “them vs. me,” not only will be reflected within attitudes of employees, but also shown within the quality of work within the company. Krzyzewski described a story when one of his players, who was previously the “water boy,” handed him a glass of water which he accidently dropped. The player’s immediate reaction was to clean it up, while Krzyzewski told him no. He wanted him to learn that, even as a leader, you have you still need to clean up your own mess. This is crucial in order to show by example to employees that everyone is equal.

Krzyzewski believes in honesty, trust, accountability, and respect, not only on the court but off the court. He exemplifies this through not only having a team relationship with each person within the team on the court, but within their personnel lives as well. He learned this first hand from his coach at West Point, Coach Knight. When Krzyzewski’s father passed away his senior year, not only did the entire team rally around him for love and support, but went the extra mile. Coach Knight went to Chicago for the funeral and to spend time and support him and his family. Krzyzewski starts each season handing out laminated cards which the phone numbers of everyone on the team, explaining that if they are in trouble to call someone on the list and they will be there to help. He is honest when recruiting telling potentials that he will not guarantee play time but can guarantee that he will give 100% dedication to the player. He doesn’t believe in recruiting players every year to only have a few graduates from Duke. He takes a personal interest in each and every one of his players, wanting to know everything that is going on in their life on or off the court. He demands honestly from each player; he will not cover up nor make excuses for his players. He requires each player to take responsibility stating that if one makes a mistake it’s everyone’s mistake. And as they will all take responsibility they all will work together to resolve the situation.

These concepts need to be taken into the company. Having a genuine concern about your employees and making the extra effort to know what is going on in their life is more beneficial than ever imaginable. Having that concern will not only it make the employee feel comfortable, but also create loyalty and trust. By doing this you will be creating a caring work environment where employees are more willing to go the extra mile because the “company” cares for them. As a manager, we are a direct representation of the company and how an employee views their manager is how they will view the company as a whole. Without this trust, the potential of the employee is lower, across the board not only will this be seen in attitudes but also be shown in productivity. The attitude of “your success is my success” needs to be cascaded from top down within the company. They need to be shown that they are a unit of one; that if one falters, everyone falters. Many companies have separation within the company from department to department. It is easier for a department to work as a team yet when it comes to the entire company it sometimes is viewed as department vs. department instead of seen as one team.

Within my personal life I can attribute my success in Corporate America to not only a similar upbringing, but also to playing softball from little league through NCAA college. Same as Krzyzewski, I was raised in a traditional Polish household where my parents did everything in their power to make sure their children success, even if this meant sacrificing themselves. Along with my parents, my grandparents also played a large role in my upbringing which is much comparable to Krzyzewski’s childhood. My grandparents had even higher expectations from siblings and me in comparison to our parents. Ultimately striving to succeed at everything we did, where the largest repercussion faced would be disappointment from either our grandparents of parents.

My parents first put me in softball at the age of nine. Both parents believed that not only did you need the academic teaching, but also the many life lessons that could only be taught by being a part of a team. Playing at a young age not only honed my skills, but also taught me many life lessons. Trust, working as a team, integrity, and responsibility are all qualities which have assisted in my success. Playing NCAA softball, I learned more than just playing the game. I learned that we all needed to act as one unit. As a second baseman, I needed to be on the same page as the short stop. We needed to know what each other were thinking without speaking. Because, ultimately, when that ball is hit you have fractions of a second to make a decision of what you will do. Without the trust and knowing each other inside and out we would not be able to work as one as opposed to many. We not only had a relationship on the field, but we worked as one off the field. Much like coach Krzyzewski, our coach took a proactive interest in every aspect of our lives. We were a family and just as a family we supported each other in our sport, academic, social and personal lives.

In closing, Coach Krzyzewski not only exemplifies a leader as a sport coach, but of what is needed from each leader in Corporate America. We need to learn to work as a whole as opposed to individual players. Taking interest in not only what is going on in employees work life, but personal life as well. All employees, no matter the position, need to be treated as an equal. Each employee plays a critical role in the success of the company and it needs to be shown that if one falters everyone falters. If the concepts were implemented and wholeheartedly believed in from top down management, every company would be an unstoppable force.