Maybe you like Mike Krzyzewski. Maybe you don’t. (Since we’re talking about Duke, most people, especially over a certain age, likely opt for the latter.)
But you can’t argue with his success.
In his 42 years as head basketball coach, Krzyzewski, who recently announced he will retire after the 2021-2022 season, holds the all-time Division I record of 1,170 wins. His teams have won five national titles, and appeared in the Final Four twelve times. He’s won five Olympic gold medals, two as an assistant and three as a head coach.
So yeah: like him or not — because you can respect any person’s success without liking them as a person — his achievements as a coach are staggering. Krzyzewski took a struggling private-school program (Bill Foster, the coach he replaced, thought the grass was greener at of all places South Carolina) and turned Duke into a powerhouse.
How? He believed he could build a winning program.
And, like every effective leader, he made his teams believe in themselves.
Perfect example: “The Shot,” Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater against Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional Finals, arguably the most iconic shot in NCAA Tournament history.
In overtime, Kentucky took a one-point lead with 2.1 seconds left on a Sean Woods running jump-hook.
What did Coach K say to his team during the time-out?
“I’d be lying if I said I thought, really, we were going to win,” Krzyzeski told Graham Bensinger. “But as a leader, you have to portray the confidence of saying, ‘We’re going to win.’ We had this eye-to-eye contact, truth thing, trust, and I said, ‘We’re going to win.'”
Belief requires a plan. In fact, belief relies on a plan.
People need to know what, but they also have to understand and embrace how. Krzyzewski drew up a play where Laettner would catch the inbounds pass near the top of the key and then make a split-second decision to shoot or pass.
“I asked Grant (Hill, who would pass the ball inbounds),” Krzyzewski said, “‘Can you throw the ball seventy-five feet?’ And he said yes.”
Then Krzyzewski asked Laettner, ‘When you come off the baseline, will you catch it?”
Laettner, who even in the most intense moments was incapable of being anything other than himself, said, “Coach, if Grant throws a good pass, I’ll catch it.”
Both were dumb questions. Obviously Hill could throw the ball that far. Clearly Laettner could catch it. So why ask?
“A lot of times,” Krzyzewski says, “when you ask somebody if they can do something, and they say they’ll do it, in their minds they’ve already done it.”
In a huge moment, one with incredibly high stakes, Krzyzewski had stripped the goal down to basic tasks each player knew he could perform.
That knowledge, that belief, inspired confidence.
In the event, Hill was able to throw a good pass (especially since Kentucky chose not to put a player on him.) Laettner was able to catch the pass.
And then Laettner made the shot. (Because like him or not, Laettner is one of the most accompolished college basketball players of all time.)
Krzyzewski didn’t know his team would win.
He didn’t know Laettner would make the shot.
In spite of his seemingly other-worldly confidence, Laettner didn’t know he would make the shot.
But Krzyzewski believed his team could win — and he helped them believe by asking basic questions that let them not only visualize, but feel confident they could successfully play their role.
His belief, and that simple motivational tactic, helped inspire belief in his players, both as individuals and as a team.
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
You can never guarantee that your team will always succeed.
You can never guarantee individual employees will always succeed.
But when you don’t believe in yourself — and when you don’t inspire belief in your employees — you can almost guarantee that you, and they, will never succeed.
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