A military veteran’s advice to new grads: Coach K on how to become a person of both success and value

This is the season of academic commencements, and a wide variety of speakers have exhorted the new graduates to a life of meaning by sharing with them various philosophies as to how to achieve it.  Most have a record of success to give their recommendations gravitas, but few can match that of Coach Mike Krzyzewski (or Coach K as he is known around here) who was Duke University’s 2016 commencement speaker.  And what a speaker he was!

With a raft of national basketball championships and Olympic gold medals, Coach K obviously knows something about success.  For my money, he’s not only the most successful college basketball coach ever, he’s also the finest coach in the history of organized athletics.  But, really, there is more to it than even that.

In essence, coaching is about leadership, about bringing out the best in others, and about organizing them to succeed as a team.  This quality has application much beyond any athletic endeavor, and it is something that can really make a positive difference in the world.  We all have much to learn from Coach K.

Interestingly, the military influenced Coach K’s leadership development, beginning with his attendance at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (where he was, unsurprisingly, captain of the basketball team).  After graduation he served five years in the Army, first as an artillery liaison officer in Korea and later as a coach of service basketball teams.  To me, so much of what he says about coaching and leading reflects the same values and principles that every military leader seeks to exhibit.

Apparently, this is no coincidence.  In his book (written with Donald T. Phillips), Leading with the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life, Coach K says:

Much of my foundation as a coach, as a leader, as a person, I learned from West Point.

Before I entered the academy, I thought I knew everything.  I lived in my own protected little world.  My parents had instilled in me a respect for authority and the ability to learn.  But West Point took me to another level.  I feel that I was very lucky to go there and get a good dose of honesty, honor and discipline.

He goes on to say that he still wears his West Point ring, but he explains that when the black stone in the center cracked, his wife had it replaced with a Duke-blue gemstone.  He then adds:

To me, this ring represents what I want for every one of my players.  West Point is the foundation – the structure, the discipline, the respect for authority.  And inside, in the center, Duke is the passion and the heart.

In life, heart matters, and in Coach K’s that too has a link to the military.  In talking to the new graduates last week, Coach K spoke about how, as coach of the US Olympic basketball team, he partnered with the U.S. military to help his team (which included NBA stars) find its heart.  As Duke Today reported it:

[Coach K] spoke about the challenge of pulling together superstars into a team, “to get them to find one heart.”  One way he did so was to take the Olympic team to visit with wounded veterans and with military troops “who understand selfless service, and really have the biggest hearts in our country. And as a result of being with them they felt it.  And as a result of that we played with one heart.”

That’s just a sampling of the wisdom Coach K conveyed, and I won’t attempt to summarize all of his insights, but allow me to say that listening to him is time extraordinarily well spent.  Of course, a leadership style sourced at a military academy may not be to everyone’s liking, and it is likewise true that persons with approaches very different from Coach K’s can still enjoy a certain kind of success.

For example, as someone with a military background I found that Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs illustrated the kind of drive one might want in a leader, but it also showed many of Jobs’ unattractive qualities.  Would Jobs have found success in a military organization or a sports team or even many (most?) other enterprises these days?  I don’t think so; I believe his achievements were very specific to his time and industry, and were despite his leadership style, not because of it.

In an insightful essay in the New York Times entitled “The Bad Behavior of Visionary Leaders” Tony Schwartz reviews portraits of several successful tech industry leaders (including Jobs) and says:

What disheartens me is how little care and appreciation any of them give (or in Mr. Jobs’s case, gave) to hard-working and loyal employees, and how unnecessarily cruel and demeaning they could be to the people who helped make their dreams come true.

While acknowledging that each of these business leaders has their defenders, and recognizing their considerable commercial success, Schwartz nevertheless observes:

The more apt question is how much more these men could have enhanced thousands of people’s lives – and perhaps made them even more successful — if they had invested as much in taking care of them as they did in conceiving great products.

“Try not to become a man of success,” Albert Einstein once said, “but rather a man of value.”

What makes Coach K’s formula so attractive is that he is both: someone of enormous success, but also a person of very great value.  He cares a lot about people – and especially the development of young people – and it shows.  Doesn’t he epitomize what we all ought to aspire to be, the financial success of the Steve Jobs’ of the world notwithstanding?

Anyway, only a relatively small number of people will have the opportunity to be tutored by Coach K as his players have been privileged to be.  But listening to his remarks will give you at least some prized nuggets from a veteran I am proud to salute.  Don’t miss the video of his commencement address that is found here – it’s well worth your time.

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