March Madness! Duke’s Coach K on Leading With Trust

Coach K Cutting Down the NetI love March Madness! The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is one of the most exciting events in sports, offering crazy upsets, game winning shots, and athletic drama unlike any other sporting event.

Duke’s coach Mike Krzyzewski knows a thing or two about winning when it counts. He is the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history with 955 wins and over a 36 year career has won four national titles, appeared in 11 Final Fours, and experienced just four losing seasons.

After setting the all-time wins record in November 2011, ESPN’s Rece Davis asked Coach K this question: “What’s the single most important characteristic for a coach to have to achieve the things you’ve achieved?”

Mike Krzyzewski’s answer is simple, yet profound, and is one that leaders everywhere should take to heart if they want to maximize their leadership influence. Here’s what he said:

“I think you have to be trustworthy. You have to take the time to develop a relationship that’s so strong with each individual player, and hopefully with the team, that they will trust you. They let you in, and if they let you in, you can teach. If they don’t let you in, you’re never going to get there.”

When Coach K references his players “letting him in,” he points to the heart. It’s not just a casual, conversational gesture. He’s making a specific point about tapping into his players’ heart – the emotional core of who they are as people. Coach K intentionally focuses on developing a trusting relationship with each of his players because he knows without that absolute level of trust, he won’t be able to teach them how to transform their potential into performance.

The same principle applies to leaders in any organization. In order to achieve success, you have to take the time to establish meaningful, trust-based relationships with your team members. If your people don’t trust you, they won’t be receptive to your coaching on ways they can improve their performance. If your team can’t trust that you’ll have their back when they fail, they won’t take the necessary risks needed to move your business forward.

Conversely, trust enables your team to confront the brutal facts of their performance and find ways to get better. Trust allows individuals to set aside their personal ego for the betterment of the team and commit wholeheartedly to pursuing a common goal. Trust is what allows leaders to tap into the collective hearts and souls of their followers to achieve greater levels of success as a team than they could ever reach individually.

Beyond the career milestones, and he’s had plenty, leading with trust is Mike Krzyzewski’s most enduring legacy. In that regard, we should all try to be like Mike.

“In leadership, there are no words more important than trust.
In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.”
Leading With The Heart ~ Mike Krzyzewski

8 Comments on “March Madness! Duke’s Coach K on Leading With Trust

  1. Coach K is an amazing Coach. I have been following him for years and believe his success is due to his coaching style. He leads from the heart! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wonderful story Randy, and very timely given the excitement of March Madness. Coach K really reinforces the importance of trust, something you share with us often. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your feedback Jim. I’m bummed because my SDSU Aztecs lost to the Cinderall FGCU team, but that’s what March Madness is all about, isn’t it? At least my Michigan Wolverines are still alive!


  3. Coach K’s style is definitely one that people will look back and analyze similar to a John Wooden. The way he not only builds strong, trusting teams, but molds individuals to fit precisely where he needs them while still believing in the overall mission is amazing. Great post. Trust is a must when it comes to leadership!

    • Thanks for your feedback Kyle. I agree that Coach K will go down in the annals of coaching as one of the all-time greats like John Wooden….although Wooden has “Yoda-like” status within the coaching and leadership arena!


  4. Randy I like your concept: “… you have to take the time to establish meaningful, trust-based relationships with your team members…”

    There is a saying in martial arts that one should trust his friends to strike him at practice so that his enemies outside cannot! But to be trusted you should first trust yourself. This is the key point when people are talking about trust they always mean others should/must trust you. Never as a process that you should trust yourself first and then you can gain trust from others. But to trust to yourself there is a long way and hard practice.

    Randy would you agree?

    Jaro Berce author of “Leadership by Virtue”

    • Jaro – I would absolutely agree about the importance of self-trust. It’s critical to have trust and confidence in yourself if you expect others to trust you.

      Keep up your great work!


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