I only had the chance to meet him twice. Once he spoke to our class at Duke in 1994. The second in 1997 at the Maui Classic in Hawaii. However as fans of a program that has been highly successful nearly every season, we are inspired to follow Coach K in so many ways – the books he has written, social media, his pre-game and post-game news conferences, his speeches to classes and corporations, and his family’s effort in charitable endeavors.
The collection of lessons I’ve learned from Coach K have made deep and broad impact in my personal and professional life:
- The power of teamwork - Collaboration means the ability to respect all opinions and the will to disagree – as well as the will to welcome disagreement. Coach K recites a lesson his mother taught him “To get on the right bus,” meaning to surround yourself with the right people who focus on the team’s goals and not just their individual aspirations. They are not “yes” people just agreeing with you because it’s easy. They also don't cower when you disagree with them. They know healthy discussion and debate is the best way to help make the team better and achieve the collective goal.
- The power of relationships - The team doesn’t mean just the team you work with or your family or the one you have an acute purpose with at the moment. The team is everyone you value and who values you in your life, no matter their age, when your lives intersected, or how long they’ve been on the journey with you. You build your team as life moves one. A few may get off the bus, but for those who stay on, you have a responsibility to give everything of yourself to help them and they will do the same for you.
- Fighting complacency after achieving a goal – The natural human reaction after working hard toward a lofty goal is to relax and take a breath. That breath can turn into a siesta and then a long sabbatical, and one ends up with an outcome of regression. It would easy to be complacent after each of the five national championships and 16 Final Fours. Coach K’s mantra was that “We are NOT defending last year’s championship. We are pursuing a national championship this year.”
- Leadership. Leadership. Leadership. – In uncountable ways, I have learned about the critical ingredients of leadership. To value all opinions. To make the tough decisions. To not shy away from conflict. To value failures even more than successes. To be objective. To be honest even when it’s painful to tell someone they must work harder, think more, find more from within themselves. To grind through adversity. To accept imperfection from others and yourself. And on and on and on.
The best part of Coach K is he is human. He has flaws. He can be egotistical at times. He feels deeply and touches deeply. He cries. He is demanding. He is compassionate. He is every human being. He is also unique.
I’m so grateful to have “known” him for more than three decades – even from afar.