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Leading with the ball: 5 lessons from the coach of the Golden State Warriors (#130)

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Jean Latting
June 20, 2024
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Jean started listening to Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, honing in on his leadership skills. She was blown away by his insights.

What’s the vibe?

You’re going to coach your team…. What are the players gonna feel when they walk into the building every day? What's the vibe? What's the culture? How are you gonna just determine like what they feel when they walk into the building every day? 

            –Steve Kerr, recounting his mentorship as a new coach by Pete Carroll

Many in my family are basketball fans. I haven’t been since high school. I would watch parts of games with family members here and there, but basketball certainly wasn’t a top priority for me. And if you had told me a year ago that I would want to write about the leadership style of a basketball coach, I would have just laughed.

Yet here I am. The Golden State Warriors, and particularly their coach, slowly grew on me.

Who is Steve Kerr and what makes him noteworthy? He’s the head coach of the Golden State Warriors. A former player, he led the team to three NBA championships. He also won five NBA championships as a player: three with the Chicago Bulls and two with the San Antonio Spurs. Two of those with the Bulls were when the legendary Michael Jordan was on the team.

A few years ago, I noticed that family members weren’t keeping up with just any team; the Warriors were becoming a favorite. Like many others, they focused particularly on the insanely impressive performance of Can’t-Miss-A-Shot Superstar Stephen Curry.1  

I, too, was impressed with Stephen Curry, yet listened to their banter about others on the team politely and with minimal interest.

So what’s special about Steve Kerr?

Then my husband started telling me about their coach, Steve Kerr, and how his coaching approaches were revolutionizing basketball. “He has a great relationship with his team. He solicits their opinion, and he has even handed over the game to them and let them coach themselves,” Diallo explained one evening, enticing me into watching one of the after-game news reels with him. He knew that anything about leadership would get my automatic attention. 

I mentally translated his words into organization development lingo: Kerr was treating his players as a self-managing team, even if only for one game. 

Most leaders still use an autocratic style of leadership: Do what the leader says. 

Lately, though, collaborative style leadership is becoming more widespread. But a collaborative sports coach? Really? My image of a sports coach was someone screaming at the team from the sidelines, telling them the next play.

Steve Kerr at Golden State Warriors press conference

The first time I saw Steve Kerr in a press conference after a game, I was enthralled. His transparency, humility, willingness to discuss mistakes, and detailed praise of his players were all there on display. 

As far as I have seen, very few top tier leaders will publicly analyze the ups and downs of their latest product endeavor with such openness and candor. 

I became hooked on the spot.

The more I learned about what Kerr stood for, the more I saw leadership lessons for us all to learn from.

What does a basketball coach have to offer me?

What? you say. What can a multimillionaire basketball coach overseeing a bunch of millionaire big-ego players teach us?

Plenty, it turns out. If you think about it, he has to lead a small group of people in front of a worldwide audience, while being second-guessed by anyone with access to a television screen and the Internet. Super-high risk, super-high stakes, super-high payoffs.  

If anyone needs to get leadership right, it’s someone whose wealth and reputation rise and fall on the quality of the team they build.

Here are five lessons we can learn from him, as I discerned them:

Define your values and live them

Kerr recounts how when he accepted the offer to coach the GSW, he talked to other coaches to get the lay of the land. Seattle’s coach Pete Carroll asked him:

How are you going to coach your team? What are the players gonna feel when they walk into the building every day? What's the vibe? What's the culture? How are you gonna just determine what they feel when they walk into the building every day?2

You've got to figure out who you are, what are the values that make you who you, and those values are have to become the culture. But you got to figure out how to make those values come alive. They can't just be words on a wall.

Kerr followed this advice, putting thought and time into figuring out his values. He reduced them down to four: competitiveness, mindfulness, compassion, and joy.

What’s the big deal about that? You can find company values on most organizations’ websites. 

What’s impressive is Kerr inhabits his values. He populates his talks with them. Team players refer to them. Sportswriters mention them.

In an interview, Kerr described how he learned to infuse the value of joy in the day-to-day lives of the team.

If Joy is one of your values, then there better be joy at practice. I mean there better be joy in the building every day. So hiring people who have a sense of humor and who can laugh at themselves on your staff is really important, and hiring creative people who can make practice fun and lively and playing music and celebrating players’ families and their accomplishments -- birth of a child. 

We want the players to walk into this building every day feeling the joy that comes from being in a place you want to be.

Later in the interview, he elaborated about the duty and privilege to spread joy to others:

There's such power in the emotion of what we do and so many people are so interested in watching us play…. It’s a team that's really fun to watch. There’s a beauty to the flow and the style….

When people ask me what's my favorite thing about Steph [Curry], it's that he understands his power. He understands how happy he can make people every single day, whether there's a camera around or not, it makes no difference. He understands just taking a moment and saying hi to someone can make someone so happy and so he likes that, just a really good-hearted human being, and so even when he's not feeling great, he will still go out of his way to make someone's day. That's a skill, not everybody can do that, nor has that even if they should.

Know what excellence looks like, and strive to be better

This relates to Kerr’s value of competitiveness. To be competitive, players have to know what excellence looks like, which Kerr accomplishes through extensive analytics. He uses analytics to provide real-time feedback to the players on how well they are doing. 

I was astounded at the minute level of detail they track. With millions on the line, it’s easy to see why. Still, their data analytics team takes it to a level I had never imagined. They have cameras all around the court and use them to keep track of hundreds of metrics.

Kerr coaches players in real time, providing them with real time data on their performance so they can alter their play.

For example, the Warriors are notorious for keeping the ball moving around the court. In fact, this is one of the ways Kerr has revolutionized the game.

Their metrics guru discovered that when the Warriors had the ball and passed it more than three times, they would lead in points. Kerr then made passing the ball a cornerstone of the team’s strategy, setting a benchmark of 300 passes per game. Simply put, players were encouraged to pass the ball often, and to limit how long they hung onto it.

You and I don’t have the luxury of having cameras and a data team watching our every move.  However, I am struck by the number of people I coach who say that the people they work with don’t know what excellence looks like. People are hard at work at their jobs, working their tails off, producing inferior products because no one tells them what excellence looks like in that work culture.

Many clients tell me that they may get only an occasional “good job” from their bosses, with no specificity or details. Then, when promotion, bonus, or raise time comes, they are told they don’t quite have what it takes. 

I encourage all the people I coach to ask their managers, their peers, their direct reports what excellence looks like in their eyes. Get everyone on the same page about this.

Here’s the lesson:

If you are a leader, do what you can to be as specific as you can with what excellence looks like to you. 

If you report to a leader, don’t sit around waiting to be told what’s in their head. They may not have formulated the words to describe it. It’s up to you ask, “Do you prefer the document with the X or the Y?” “Which parts of this really resonate with you?” “What should I take out?” Learn to ask questions to get actionable feedback that guides you on how to produce excellent work in your setting.

Collaborate; don’t abdicate

As any leader can tell you, the scope of a leadership job is daunting. Steve Kerr has the added pressure of working under the public microscope, in a high emotions, fast action, aggressive sport. 

Under those circumstances, the urge to just take charge and tell people what to do has to be strong.  Yet, Kerr is wise enough to know that collaboration is key.

Kerr:

I do think that NBA coaching is a collaboration. It's a collaboration with your stars and with your GM [general manager] and your owner and it really has to be this group effort. I remember when I took the job I think [the owner] said something about you know you got to be able to manage in every direction….

When you're in a position like this, I think you've got to be able to manage your players, manage your staff, but even manage your boss or your owner and allow yourself to be managed at the same time. I would say that I think is probably the key at this level because there's so much pressure and there's so much emotion you have to be able to get through it together. It's not easy but I do think that's a prerequisite.3

Collaboration as a preferred strategy doesn’t mean it’s the only tool in the toolkit. An ongoing challenge with leaders is when to show leadership by taking charge and making the decision, and when to collaborate with the team so their ideas are considered and they have input. 

Here’s how Kerr explains it:

Basketball is different than any other sport because there's so few players. Yeah. I think you have to walk a fine line being a coach in the NBA these days. People have to know you're in charge. The players have to feel that and they have to respect that, but they have to feel that you're collaborating with them. Right. And it's more so now than ever.

But even back then, Phil Jackson [coach of the Chicago Bulls] and Michael Jordan were collaborators. Phil would lead the team with Michael, and he would empower people. He would put his foot down when he had to. He was an amazing communicator. And so there was this feeling of all right, we're doing this together, and that's how I tried to coach the Warriors.

But you can't appear weak either. You can't appear like you don't know what you're talking about. So it's an interesting balance.4

Kerr’s ability to walk that balance has earned him accolades throughout the sports industry.

Steve Kerr coaching at a live basketball game

In 2018 during a game with the Phoenix Suns, he apparently had been too top-heavy, and the team had stopped listening to him. What he did was give them the scorecard and put them in charge of the coaching duties. The players divided up the tasks and rotated them among themselves. Result: they won, 129-83.

As he explained it:

It had to do with me reaching my team. I have not reached them for the last month. They're tired of my voice. I'm tired of my voice. It's been a long haul these last few years and I wasn't reaching them, and we just figured it was probably a good night to pull a trick out of the hat and do something different.

I think just having to count on each other and not hearing my voice, which sort of sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher, parents, or whoever's voice it is at this point. That's what I sound like to them. So they needed a different voice.5

I cannot overstate how skillful an approach that is as a leader. Kerr was willing to risk losing the game, rather than continuing a losing strategy of telling the team what to do. Putting them in charge energized them, gave them a rest from listening to him, and renewed their ability to count on each other.

A former client of mine took the same approach at a critical juncture. She was newly promoted, and her seven-person team would ignore her directives or argue with her. She got tired of it.  One day, the team had a choice between two alternatives. Based on her experience, she knew that the direction the team wanted to go would backfire. They insisted that she should “trust” them as her team. 

As she explained to me, she decided the damage wouldn’t be extensive if she let them do it their way, and so she did. She knew what would happen and decided to let them experience it.  After it blew up in their faces, they became more willing to follow her direction. 

Infuse justice and inclusion throughout your work

Steve Kerr is well-known for speaking up about social justice causes. It’s one of the several ways he demonstrates the value of compassion. His commitment came from exposure to other cultures as a child of academics in foreign countries. 

One thing that we were always taught was perspective. We traveled a lot and lived overseas for several years. Growing up I saw people in really deep poverty in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Lebanon. What an incredible education as a young kid to see other cultures, to be in other cultures. So I think it gives you a perspective and allows you to have empathy for people and allows you to be incredibly thankful for what you have.6

In 1984, when Kerr was 18 years old and in college, his father, then President of the American University of Beirut, was assassinated by presumed terrorists. The tragedy undergirds his lifelong, unequivocal advocacy for gun control.

Kerr has also spoken up in favor of Black Lives Matter. In an interview with Jon Stewart, the former Daily Show host and now podcast host, Kerr talked about his background and what the George Floyd tragedy had meant to him:

Stewart: You're a White guy. But you're in a league now that is overwhelmingly Black. Does that divide create difficulties, and for you, to feel like you're at a remove that you'll never be able to understand, especially during the times of social unrest and after George Floyd?

Kerr: Yeah, I just interact with every player on a really personal level and connect with that player. And that's what I try to do with our guys, and that breaks down a lot of walls for sure.

But then you also have the awareness as a White guy in a Black man's game that you don't know how these guys feel in certain circumstances. And so being aware of that, if you try to pretend like you know everything, they'll see right through that.

But if you admit to your frailties, to your different perspective that you have growing up as a White person, and you actually talk about all those things, then the walls start to come down. 

And that's the beauty of sports, really, is you get people from all over the world collaborating and coming together and playing.

But I will say that when the George Floyd murder happened, and the social justice march really began, that was a real reckoning for me as someone who thought I knew more than I did about Black life.

I've played since junior high with mostly Black teammates, and so my thought was always, oh, I think I understand Black life.

And then George Floyd hits and I realize I need to start reading. I need to start learning. And I spent all last year reading a ton of great books. The New Jim Crow, Caste, books like that are, for White people. It's like, this is must-read stuff. Because there's nuanced stuff in there that you'd never think….

As a father of three, when a police car would drive by our house, I didn't think anything of it. And then all of a sudden when you start really looking into things, and learning, and reading, and hearing stories, it's like, man, I was really ignorant.

I’ve heard variations of his revelations multiple times from many friends and colleagues. I’ve read other White people talk about the same realization. I have written blog posts about it7, 8 and co-led discussion groups.9 Yet, I never tire of hearing someone say it. 

It’s so easy to take for granted that familiarity means knowledge – that because we are friends and talk around subjects, I know your experiences. I cannot stress enough how gratifying it is for me as a child of the segregated South to hear White people say they are willing to learn about the Black experience. We all want to be seen.

In a similar vein, with the Palestine-Israel war going on, I am learning just how little I know about the experiences of my Jewish and Muslim friends, how easy it is to assume that because I know what oppression feels like, I know what their oppression feels like.

As a leader, Kerr realized that he would either commit to learning or stay locked in superficial familiarity. He chose to learn.

And beyond that, he chose to educate with his team. He brought in speakers on social justice to lead discussions with the team, so they could express themselves and learn from one another.

He became an advocate for BLM and other causes10 and participated in discussions about how NBA players might positively impact public policy.11

Develop a daily restorative practice

Think about the emotional pressure cooker they live and work in. Millions of dollars at stake. A time-limited career. Public scrutiny. Hundreds of thousands of armchair coaches yelling at them in front of their television screens. Unleashed testosterone on full display at every game. Hour after hour of practice to hone skills, only to falter at a crucial moment, costing the team – or to rise to the occasion and gain the glory of winning for the team.

Mindfulness is the practice Kerr has chosen for his team to learn, so they manage their emotions rather than be managed by them. He encourages players to stay in the moment, bring open joy to the work, focus on the process, and be grateful for the opportunity to play.

They train in mindfulness and build mindfulness into their practice sessions. Focusing their minds on the second-by-second actions is crucial to their success.

In the past week, I spoke with a coaching group about their reactions to these horrific wars we are experiencing in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip. These are leaders in an organization whose everyday lives are far from these tragedies, yet the vivid images of people experiencing the unthinkable is weighing us all down.

They looked to me for encouragement, and all I could think was that we have to know how to live through the unthinkable, how to find joy and meaning anyway, and to recognize that disasters and tragedies are part of life. 

I don’t have millions of dollars riding on whether I can shoot a basket from the three-point line, but I do have people who count on me, and I count on myself. 

I encouraged the team to each develop a daily practice to clear their minds – mindfulness, journaling, Transcendental Meditation, whatever. Treat your mental health as though it’s as worthy of attention as your physical health. People eat and drink and eliminate and sleep to take care of their bodies. These are daily practices.

Let’s also recognize the value of daily practices to keep our minds and emotions healthy. It’s essential for the Golden State Warriors. It’s essential for the rest of us.  

Summing it up

Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, turned out to be an unlikely source (for me) for illustrating critical leadership precepts. As far as I am concerned, they apply no matter your industry, job level, or length of experience. 

To succeed as a leader, consider how you might follow his lead:

  1. Define your values and live them
  2. Know what excellence looks like and strive to be better
  3. Collaborate; don’t abdicate
  4. Infuse justice and inclusion throughout your work
  5. Develop a daily restorative practice

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Which of the five lessons resonate the most with you? Which have less appeal?
  2. How can you support your leaders in developing their own favored approaches?

 

Conscious change skills
covered in this blog post

  • Build effective relationships
    • Engage in powerful listening
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
    • Learn how to give, receive, and seek feedback
    • Apologize effectively
  • Bridge differences
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • As a dominant group member, provide support to nondominant group members
    • Call others in rather than calling them out

#stephencurry  #stevekerr #leadership

 

Please explain your answers in the comments.
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Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings.

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.  

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

Let’s start a conversation. Email us at jeanLC@leadingconsciously.com