Coach K: Mike Krzyzewski on Teamwork

As a University of Kansas basketball fan, I’ve never rooted for Duke. But there is a Duke moment that stands out in my memory. It occurred probably 10 or 15 years ago. Duke was in the process of getting upset in the NCAA Tournament. They were playing hard that day but not well. Near the end of the game, the senior star player fouled out, highlighting the frustrating day for everyone. As he exited the floor for the last time as a college athlete, he headed straight for Coach Mike Krzyzewski with tears streaming down his face and the two shared a prolonged embrace.

My first thought was that Coach K must have really messed up his black suit hugging a really sweaty guy (probably a sign that I’d make a terrible basketball coach). The second was how evident the bond between the leader and the followers was that day. It wasn’t an expression of victory, but one of commitment.

Coach K Sideline

In case you didn’t know, “Coach K” is the winningest coach in Division 1 college basketball with over 1,000 wins. He played and coached under Bob Knight at West Point. He’s won four national championships at Duke University. And he’s coached several Team USA men’s basketball teams to Olympic gold.

But Coach K will be the first to tell you that winning it all is too shallow of a goal to play for. Instead, the focus should be on building teams that can consistently be in a position to perform at their very best. Coach K knows how to build winning teams. Here are just a few of his teamwork strategies.

Inclusive Language

According to Coach K, something sacred happens when our language changes from “I” to “we,” from “my” to “our,” and from “me” to “us.” All of a sudden, there’s no longer such a thing as “my” team; only “our” team. And if it’s “our” team, that means every part of the team is equal in value, regardless of the individual roles. The bottom line is this: teams win or lose together.

Collective Goals and Responsibility

At Leadercast 2013, Coach K shared his famous fist analogy which goes like this: any one fist can defeat any one finger. In other words, the best team can always defeat the best individual. That’s why individual goals only work in the context of overall team goals. Only a group mentality can create a team identity. When leaders take responsibility for their own actions and mistakes, it sets a powerful precedent for the team. But leaders need to take responsibility for the performance of the team as a whole – and own it collectively. At that point, commitment takes on a whole new meaning. “When you love your team and are committed to them, you can’t let them down. You might let yourself down, but you won’t let your team down.” The result? A shared confidence – one that is better than a confidence only in yourself.


We hear a lot about trust from most teamwork or relationship experts. According to Coach K, a team commitment has to be be based on trust, which in turn is based on telling the truth. The quicker teammates tell the truth to each other, the faster they can get and stay on track. When teams trust one another, confrontation is a constructive, not destructive, experience because it is based on the team’s commitment to their collective performance. True friends tell each other the truth, so why shouldn’t true teammates? Confrontation can’t break a relationship that is bonded by trust. Without trust, a team is defeated by within instead of by the competition.

Building Relationships

What stood out to me about the court-side hug between player and coach was that it was simply an expression of a relationship that had been established long ago. Coach K shared in his book Leading with the Heart that “the only way to lead people is to understand them. And the only way to understand them is to get to know them personally. That’s why you need to invest time with each person.” Why? Because people don’t follow a leader who has his own agenda or doesn’t ever show his “real” side. Too many leaders are afraid to show their real side, which is exactly what they need to show to connect with their teams.

Even though I don’t root for Duke, I root for what Coach K stands for. I want to be on a team like the ones he creates. I’d like to create those kinds of teams as well. Here’s the good news: it’s possible. What’s the next step for your team?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.