Leading Blog


Getting to US

Getting to US


ETH DAVIS writes, “A team begins as a collection of mes, hims, and yous. It is the job of the coach to figure out a way to get to Us.”

Davis asks, “How do great coaches turn a collection of individuals into a coherent us?” He narrows it down to four personal qualities that are the core requirements all great coaches must have in order to get a group of individuals to Us.

In Getting to Us, Seth Davis interviewed nine coaches of football and basketball, college and pro. And not only the coaches but also their wives and families, their friends, their players, and colleagues. Nine very different men with very different personalities. This is really the task of every leader, but interviewing sports figures is a good place to start learning about building teams that can perform at a consistently high level.

The four core qualities form what he calls the PEAK profile: Persistence, Empathy, Authenticity, and Knowledge.

In each of the nine coaches' lives, their PEAK profile was forged in different ways. It is interesting to read how each one of them was transformed by life experiences to learn persistence and empathy, how to be themselves, and how they acquired and continue to acquire the knowledge necessary to excel in their profession. You’ll find that it is a lot of small things consistently done right, that brings them success. At the same time, there is the humility to modify what needs to be modified for the sake of the team.

It is interesting too, that while each possesses these four qualities, they each express them in unique ways so that there is no secret to replicate. They each had to learn to do what was right for them.

PEAK ProfileDavis sees persistence as “the strain of character one leans upon during those quiet moments when self-doubt creeps in. It is both tested and manufactured during childhood and early-adulthood adversity.” That is one thread you will find running through the lives of each of these coaches. The trick, of course, is to transfer that desire to learn and grow through the tough times to the team you are leading.

Empathy is the most important of all of the qualities. Empathy is being sensitive to the feelings of others. “A great coach must find ways to learn about his players, taking time to acquire the critical information that will lead him to understand how the player’s mind, heart, and guts operate.”

Authenticity is remaining true to yourself and acting accordingly. “What makes them great coaches is their refusal to be something they are not.” It’s finding what works for you and not deviating from it, “particularly in those critical moments when the team must function as a single unit or suffer defeat.”

Of course, the team has to believe that you have to believe that you know what you are doing. “Acquiring this knowledge take time and passion.” It’s a life-long pursuit. But there must be humility in the mix. “Knowledge without adaptability will eventually diminish a leader’s effectiveness. People change, games change, times change. Life authenticity, knowledge is an important step on the pathway to trust.”

Here are some of the instructive excerpts from several of the coaches he profiled:

Urban Meyer—Head football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes

His sabbatical taught him the importance of living a balanced life and conserving energy, which replenished his persistence. Having to face his own weaknesses and limitations deepened his empathy. The time off gave him a chance to reevaluate what was important to him, which reset his authenticity.

Tom Izzo— Head Basketball Coach of the Michigan State Spartans

The principles he learned in the family store: Show up. Work hard. Give back. Stay humble.

“From day one he creates a family atmosphere and makes it known that he cares about you as an individual.”

“I spend time with my players. That’s how I get to know them and can determine which way I need to go with them.”

It takes more than a coach to get to Us. “I’ve always said, a player-coached team is much better than a coach-coached team.”

“I worry about all the time spent on Twitter. That’s why there are no leaders on teams anymore. Kids can’t communicate. … We’re teaching kids that they should have your own ‘brand.’ Be your own guy. So now at fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, it’s me me me me me me. This is not about old school/new school. It’s about right school/wrong school.”

Mike Krzyzewski—Head Basketball Coach of the Duke University Blue Devils

[and that’s Sha-SHEF-ski]

“Failure is not a destination, and you’re never going to do it alone.”

Practice plans were scheduled down to the minute, but they also included notes explaining how each drill would prepare the team for its next opponent. That allowed his players to visualize the big picture.

“I don’t coach for winning. I coach for relationships.”

He wants his players to be instinctive, not calculating—to follow the courage of their convictions, just as his grandparents did when they set sail for America. Instinctiveness begets adaptability.

Doc Rivers—Head Coach for the Los Angeles Clippers

It is through this balance between coldness and empathy that Doc Rivers gets his team to Us. When critical moments arise, he doesn’t play the victim and he doesn’t want a hug. He’d rather pivot and get moving, trusting that is players will follow.

“I learned from [Pat] Riley that the key to coaching is to get a group of players to believe there’s one agenda and that you have the same agenda as them. If you can do that, your players are going to do whatever they can do for you.”

Brad Stevens—Head Coach for the Boston Celtics

As a college player to his coach: “What are supposed to do, just lay down for these guys?”—[Coach Bill] Fenlon gave him his first lesson on leadership. “No, you should play hard,” he said. “But do it in a way that brings them along. Don’t create a divide.” Stevens says, “I became content when I came to the conclusion of, ‘Hey moron, it’s not about you. It’s about being as good of a teammate as you can be and putting your best foot forward every day.’”

“Do you want to be around somebody who lifts you up or somebody that breaks you down? That’s why whenever people ask me what’s your leadership style, my answer is, ‘It should be you.’ There’s an authenticity that is needed for leadership. If it’s not real, then it’s not going to work.”

“I think a lot of people in sports have missed the boat on mental health. You have to be empathetic in knowing that everybody has their own lives, and everybody has something tough going on. You need to make sure you understand that before you coach them.”

“Toughness is doing the next right thing.”

“All the good ones want to be coached.”

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