From the Archives: The Coach K Difference

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 21, 2011

Ever heard of Mike Krzyzewski? Maybe not. How about Coach K? Ah, that rings a bell. Because, on the basketball court and in the corporate boardroom, he’s the guy everybody wants on their team.

Who wouldn’t? After all, he’s the winningest active coach in college basketball today, having led his Duke University Blue Devils to back-to-back national championships and maintained a top-notch basketball program throughout his 21 years at Duke. He’s taken teams to the NCAA’s coveted Final Four eight times – even when the media discounted his team as too small or inexperienced.

So when the 54-year-old Krzyzewski (pronounced Shuh-SHEV-ski), touted by many sports-writers as the most brilliant strategist in college basketball, speaks to Fortune 500 CEOs and shares his leadership style and winning strategics, they listen.

They listen because they want what Coach K’s got: the keys to successful leadership.

For one thing, he uses many techniques that are key to achieving success in business (hence his popularity as a speaker). He emphasizes team building and team play, brand awareness, goal-setting, resource management, and building and sustaining a quality product. But he often puts an unusual spin on these mainstays.

Krzyzewski tells executives that the key to Duke’s basketball success is the hard work, mental toughness, and “heart” demonstrated by his players. Having said that, he describes the rather eclectic business strategies he uses to run his unusual company.

Krzyzewski, described by The Sporting News as “what’s right about sports,” says, for example, that he’s big on values that can make every team great on and off the court: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring, and pride. “I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist,” he says. “Any individual finger is important. But all of them together are unbeatable.”

Like any good coach, Krzyzewski isn’t afraid to give his players a good “tongue blistering” when it’s needed.

“This isn’t all about ‘I love you,’ and ‘Let’s hold hands and skip,’” he says in his latest book (with Donald Phillips), Leading With the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life (Warner Books, 200; paperback, March 2001), “It’s also about ‘Get your rear in gear,’ “What the hell are you doing?’ and ‘Why aren’t you in class?’”

His ire is enough to rattle 7-foot-tall centers half his age, but these occasions are considerably fewer than those in which Krzyzewski metes out hugs and encouragement, players say. “Discipline is not such a bad thing,” he says. “It’s simply doing what you’re supposed to do as well as you can when you’re supposed to do it.”

His nontraditional philosophies are well illustrated by a statement sure to draw a wince from the most experience CEOs. “Too many rules get in the way of leadership and box you in,” Krzyzewski says. “I think people sometimes set rules to keep from making decisions.”

And how’s this for a radical departure from the bottom-line focus: “I never set number goals,” he proclaims. “Never.” Goals that focus on playing together as a team are more important and can position your team to win every game, he says.

Following his own instincts has worked well for Krzyzewski. In fact, if colleagues, competitors, and journalists are to be believed, Krzyzewski the CEO has demonstrated the tenacity of Lee Iacocca, the strategic smarts of Bill Gates, the motivational gifts of Zig Ziglar, and the heart of Sam Walton.


Krzyzewski, whose nickname is related both to the tricky pronunciation of his name and the ease with which Duke’s blue-painted fans can incorporate it into outrageous chants, speaks quickly and comfortably about sports as big business.

“College athletics is a business- a multimillion dollar business,” he says, “but we need to make sure it doesn’t exist solely as a business and get so far away from what it’s really about. College athletics is a great teaching vehicle-at Duke, we take the theory from the classroom and combine it with the reality on the court. Players learn to deal with success and failure as a team." (A stickler for good grades at the academically demanding university, Krzyzewski has also earned a reputation for graduating his players in four years.)

While he doesn’t believe the tail should wag the dog, Krzyzewski concedes that, in many ways, he functions like a CEO of a different sort of company. In his position, “you have to pay attention and make sure that the business is running well, so that you can operate an exceptional program,” he says.

His effective communication and marketing skills garnered him an additional title in 1998- assistant to the athletic director. “I’m working a lot with the marketing, development, and strategy behind our program, and I try to come up with new ideas for fundraising,” he says. At the same time, “I’m keeping the product- basketball-at a very high level.”

His job, Krzyzewski says, “is not just to get more points than another team. I’m running a big business, a business that has impact on university business, Duke hospital business, and our national image. Whether I’m doing television or public speaking- in all that I do, I’m thinking of my responsibility to Duke,” he says.

“I welcome that responsibility, but I have to get the support that I need in order to perform at the highest level. And in order to get that, I’ve had to learn to accept help from talented people around me.”

His team-building and motivational skills have stood the feisty coach in good stead throughout his career- a career highlighted by his 500th career victory last fall and the naming of the hallowed center court at Cameron Indoor Stadium in his honor.

Krzyzewski, whose serious demeanor occasionally relaxes into a big grin, has developed his own way of handling the glory and the criticism. He doesn’t get caught up in what the media reports, and he teaches his players- who more often than not enter a season under the pressure of a No. 1 ranking—to do the same.

"Success is doing the best you can- all the time,” Krzyzewski says. “As a result of that, you are able to define what success means to you. It’s a real mistake to let others define your success.” This principle and others are outlined- complete with a forword by the former Blue Devil and Orlando Magic player Grant Hill, diagrams, and “preseason, regular season, post-season, and all-season” game plans- in Leading With the Heart.


Krzyzewski, an intense man who can unleash a streak of blue language at his Blue Devils from the sidelines, reminds executives that organization frees you from being a hog-tied by the rules.

Organization – Coach K style- means that, for example, when his players report to their first team meeting of the year, they don’t just get uniforms- they also receive notebooks, pocket calendars, and other logistical items. Then Krzyzewski gives his time management talk. “We teach the students about time management as it relates to them individually and also as a group. We want them to know right off the bat that they also have responsibilities to their teammates.”

Krzyzewski says he learned a lot about organization from his controversial mentor Bobby Knight, when Knight coached him at Army. “His organizational and preparatory skills are meticulous,” he says.

An assistant coach for the Gold Medal Olympic “Dream Team,” Krzyzewski uses a variety of team-building strategies, some of which he considers common sense and most of which translate well into a business setting. In Leading With the Heart, he says he recruits only players who are “coachable” and who want to be a part of a team. He also sets different goals each year, basing them on the personalities and abilities of each new group.

He promotes team interdependence in a variety of ways. For example, early each season he gives players a card with all their teammates’ and coaches’ home phone numbers and encourages them to stay in touch with and help one another. (That emphasis is obvious on the court, according to ESPN analyst Dick Vitale. “If there is one word to sum up Duke on offense, it’s unselfish,” he said after a Duke win in December.)

Krzyzewski’s recruiting philosophies also reflect his strong feelings about the importance of teamwork. While he has recruited his share of “stars,” he says he doesn’t bring them in based on technical merit alone. “It’s equally important to consider how they might work as part of team,” he says. And once he has recruited a good group, he works to earn their respect by being “caring, communicative, and honest,” Krzyzewski says. “Your team needs to instantly believe what you say” he tells business leaders. “That’s why you have to embrace the hell out of personal responsibility.”


Few believe the charismatic coach when he says he’s not a natural-born leader. “I’m a person who, with guidance, has developed leadership skills; you can do that, too,” he tells business leaders.

He started as a Polish Catholic boy growing up in Chicago and organizing neighborhood ball games. He wound up- at his parent’s insistence- on Knight’s team at West Point. Although he didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, Krzyzewski says he realizes now that, under Knight’s tutelage, he was well led and was “also taught to be capable of leading.”

Krzyzewski encourages leaders to capitalize on their strengths. If you’re “daring like Bobby Hurley,” or confident like Christian Laettner,” or “humble like Grant Hill,” use it to the fullest, he says. His own strength, he believes, is the ability to get inside his players’ head and hearts.

“An important part of being a leader is the ability to feel what your players- or employees- feel,” he says. “I do a lot of feeling, and my guys know it. I can’t dream up plays and defense without knowing how Shane Battier and Jason Williams feel. And it makes me a better coach.”

Never one to mince words, Krzyzewski criticizes what he sees as a lack of empathy among many business leaders. The first question he asks CEOs attending his seminars is: “Have you connected with your people lately?” He too, has difficulty staying on top of that one as demands on his time continue to multiply, he tells them.

“You have to work at it, because, ironically, the success that your business enjoys tends to pull you farther away from your people,” he says. “I tell business leaders that the first sign that you have a good team is the existence of trust. The team that trusts- their leader and each other – is a good team to lead and is more likely to be successful.


Blue Devil success has been a terrific ride for Krzyzewski and his guys. But the biggest challenge- one some of the most successful businesspeople can appreciate- is staying at the top, he says. “Sustaining excellence in a changing environment is the biggest challenge in any field. You have to continue to seek that higher level of excellence so you can be proud of what you do.”

Krzyzewski, a former Army officer who moves with military precision, takes pride in his teams’ on-going ability to win “even when we aren’t the best team,” but he’s careful to avoid the casual use of superlatives. “I’m not saying we’re the best, but we’re one of the best,” he says with a smile. (At press time, the Duke Blue Devils were ranked No. 2 in the nation.)

The self-described “teacher and coach” tells executives he prefers to be called “influential” rather than powerful. “I think it’s more important to be influential, to possess the ability to have people listen to you and follow you so that you can help bring about positive change.”

Putting his money where his mouth is, Krzyzewski, a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, has used his influence to lobby the legislature on behalf of basketball and college athletics. He was instrumental in the recent successful movement to name coaches, for the first time, as voting members of NCAA.

“Leadership is getting people to buy into something, making them feel vested in the whole decision-making process,” says NBA star Hill. “Coach K is remarkable at doing that.”


Having rallied from hip replacement surgery two years ago, Krzyzewski says he feels great. Though he’s often courted by NBA teams as well as by top basketball colleges, he maintains his loyalty to Duke and brushes off suggestions of retirement anytime soon. (Highly sought after for commercial endorsements, Krzyzewski has bolstered his healthy six-figure salary by associations with Nike and other companies.) He manages to work the corporate seminars into his busy schedule because he enjoys them. “I really like doing this- it takes me outside my world and introduces me to a lot of successful people in other businesses.”

While Krzyzewski doesn’t have heroes- if he did, his mother would probably occupy that slot- he says he sees some “great qualities” in business people such as John Mack, president and COO of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. “I like the way he handles decision making,” he says. Krzyzewski also praises the entrepreneurial achievements of Phil Knight, CEO, president, and chairman of Nike. “No one has pushed a dream to reality to the high extent that Phil has,” he says. He started out selling shoes from the trunk of his car and formed what has become the largest company of its type in the world- and he’s done it being sensitive to people’s needs.” (Knight and Krzyzewski became friends when they collaborated on the Nike line of Coach K sportswear.)

There have been times when his feisty wife Mickie has had to nudge him about his priorities, but Krzyzewski says family will always be first with him. “Mickie and I work well as a team, and her input into what I do is invaluable,” he says. “Over the years, she’s hung in there and taught me that a job like mine is not an individual’s job- it has to be a family job.” ( Busy CEOs, take note, he says.)

It’s not unusual to find Krzyzewski, flanked by a few gangly players (“they’re family, too, “he says), around the kitchen table at the Durham home he shares with his wife and youngest daughter, Jamie, a Duke freshman. The couple has two other grown daughters, Debbie and Lindy, a baby grandson, and another on the way. (“It’s funny what happens when you become a grandparent,” Krzyzewski grins, “You start to act all goofy and do things you never thought you’d do. It’s terrific.”)

Krzyzewski dedicated his latest book to his brother, Bill, who, he says, “has the biggest heart of all.” Bill and his parents (both deceased) are important parts of the personal story Krzyzewski shares in the locker room and the boardroom. His mother Emily cleaned the Chicago Athletic Club for small wages, and his father William worked as an elevator operator. Neither graduated from high school, but they parented him well, he says.

"We didn’t have much money,” Krzyzewski recalls, “but I never thought of us as poor. I was taught that who you are is not what you do or what you have. I’m confident in who I am.” He attributes that healthy attitude to his mother, whom he describes as “the best person I ever met.”

Krzyzewski, when expanding on the theme of defining your own success, says, “I don’t need anyone to tell me, “You’ve had a great year, I know when I do- I’m living it. I know what the kids are going through- I know better than anybody.”

The same author of that brash statement tears up when he recalls praise that mattered to him—that from his mother. Once, after watching him conduct a basketball camp, she looked at him thoughtfully and “shook her head” he recalls. “She said to me, ‘Micky’- that’s her nickname for me – ‘how did all this happen to you?’ And I said, ‘Because of you Ma. It happened because of you.” She smiled tearfully and shooed him away. “Oh, go on, Micky,” she said. And he has done that, leading with the heart.

Read more about Coach K in our April 2011 issue of SUCCESS.