Duke’s Coach K shares stories of leadership and change at ENGAGE 2022

By Andrew Kenney

Before Mike Krzyzewski was one of basketball's most legendary coaches, he had another plan: accounting.

"When I was in high school, I wanted to be an accountant, and I was really good in math," said Krzyzewski, the former head coach of the Duke University men's basketball program, in a keynote conversation at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2022 in Las Vegas.

Of course, Krzyzewski instead went on to become the winningest coach in NCAA Division I men's basketball history. But in his remarks before thousands of attendees, Krzyzewski shared leadership lessons that transcend any one profession.

After his initial interest of accounting, Krzyzewski said, his focus turned to his true passion: teaching, coaching, and communicating.

"I've loved what I've been doing for 47 years," he told interviewer Jill Schlesinger, a business analyst for CBS News. For more than an hour, the coach described how he built a culture where he could inherently put his belief in his players, assistant coaches, and others.

"It takes a while to build that trust," Krzyzewski said. "But if you have it, it is, I believe, the hugest force multiplier that there is. Whether it be a personal relationship, family or business relationship, the ability to trust one another in a moment."

Krzyzewski traced his growth as leader to a fateful meeting in the 1980s with his mentor, Bob Knight, and beloved coaches Henry Iba and Pete Newell. Krzyzewski had been modeling his coaching style after Knight's, but the two older men urged him to find his own way.

They told him: "Don't be us. Don't be him. If you see things that you like, use them, but don't copy — because you'll never be authentic, and you will never really follow your heart," Krzyzewski said.

"It was an amazing moment, and I changed how I coached. I followed my instincts better," the five-time national champion said.

Krzyzewski quickly became one of college basketball's greatest recruiters, and he looked for three main traits: talent, academics, and character. Talent was a given. Academically, players had to show an ability to balance an academic career with athletics, though they didn't have to be "great."

But the "deal-breaker," the coach said, was character: how players interact with their teammates, their teachers, their mothers.

"You should know who you're going to war with," he said. There's no formula for finding character, he warned, but he asks two key questions of players and staff: "What do you think, and how do you feel?"

Krzyzewski shared some striking stories of character in action. One was about Michael Jordan, who rose to prominence at Duke's biggest rival, the University of North Carolina. Krzyzewski was an assistant coach for the 1992 U.S. men's basketball "Dream Team" that featured Jordan and other superstars.

Krzyzewski was intimidated, seeing the challenge of corralling elite players and their egos, especially with the Duke-UNC rivalry coloring his relationship with Jordan. But Jordan made a point of humility by asking for Krzyzewski's help on offense during a practice.

Jordan was implicitly saying that "everyone's important," Krzyzewski said. And the coach would use that lesson and others to imbue pride and meaning in future teams on the collegiate and world stage.

"My people don't work for me — they work with me. It's theirs," he said. "And if you can create 'our' instead of 'mine,' it's really damn good. And that makes people want to come to work. … And I've loved that."

He later shared stories of several tight games — games that were saved not by a brilliant coaching call, but by the words and spirits of individual players. He remembered Kobe Bryant telling the U.S. Olympic team during a game against Spain: "We're good. This is why we're here." Or Grayson Allen urging his Duke team to a comeback national championship victory with cries of "Let's go!"

Krzyzewski surmised: "As the leader, you may not have the answer. And it's OK, as long as your team has the answer."

— Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.

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