4 Leadership Lessons Every CEO Can Learn From Steve Kerr
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Steph Curry makes game-winning three-pointers, was league MVP two years in a row and is the undisputed star and on-court leader of the Golden State Warriors. All eyes are usually on him, and that gaze only intensifies during the NBA Finals. My eyes, however, are just as often on the team's coach, Steve Kerr.
The tech industry looks to people like Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg as examples of strong, effective leaders, but over in Oakland, the key principles for building and leading a highly successful team are on display regularly at Oracle Arena. The Warriors’ dominance comes from Kerr’s unshakeable vision and authority and his ability to coordinate an exceptional team -- not from one superstar’s contributions. Here are a few things I, and other business leaders, can and should borrow from Kerr’s coaching playbook.
1. Take the pulse of your team constantly.
Whether you’ve just raised millions in funding or lost an important member of the team, it’s vital to have your finger on the pulse of your group all the time. If you’re out of touch and not seeing what people are feeling and dealing with day in and day out, your team -- and ultimately, your business -- will suffer for it. You need to stay close to your people and have empathy for their needs. In return, they’ll have more trust in your decisions.
After scoring 20 points in the Warriors’ game one victory over the Cavaliers, Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said this of Kerr. “He has just a great feel for the energy and the temperature of the team. He’s great at just taking the temperature and finding the right matchups for us and putting us in places where we can excel.” Kerr’s coaching staff has also described him as a leader who wants input and gives everyone a voice.
2. Know the right times to show emotions.
Kerr smashed a clipboard to pieces on the sidelines during game one, after the Warriors gave up their lead and started trailing in the third quarter. It seemed like a break in character from the normally calm, focused Kerr. His explanation -- via Twitter -- "Destruction tends to ease some of the anger, so I try to take it out on the board rather than a player."
Kerr is as fiery of a competitor as anyone you’ll come across in business. Just watch the replay of his fist plowing through that clipboard. It’s easy for tempers to rise at work too, but using fear as a motivator isn’t a productive strategy over the long term. Go take a boxing class, break a clipboard once in a while,. Do whatever you need to do to manage your temper, so long as it doesn’t undermine the focus, determination and loyalty that makes your team successful.
3. See the star potential in every team member.
Investing in your employees and having faith in their abilities can’t be overstated. The Warriors are known for their unselfishness, to the point where they’ve been criticized for passing the ball too much and giving up open shots. Compare that with other teams built around a single superstar, whose fortunes rise and fall on that player’s game. There’s a reason one of the Warriors’ tag lines is “Strength in Numbers.”
Kerr is well-known for committing to all of his players and building an incredibly deep bench of talent. This has been demonstrated time and time again during the playoffs, as a diverse lineup of players has stepped up when the team needed them.
Doubters were quick to predict the Warriors’ demise when Curry’s knee injury kept him on the sidelines earlier in the playoffs. Yet the team prevailed. In game one of the finals, Curry and Klay Thompson were hitting bricks instead of living up to their “Splash Brothers” nickname, and the Warriors won anyway. Kerr could ignore the doubters because he knows what the team is capable of and trusted the bench would rise to the occasion. And it did.
For businesses, it’s all about building a company culture where excellence is expected, and employees have no doubt they’re being valued and developed to their full potential.
4. Embrace that chip on your shoulder.
Part of why Kerr is so loved is that he’s humble and hardworking, but he also possesses a grittiness and determination to succeed.
For Kerr's first five years in the NBA, he rarely played. He was taking summer classes and thinking of going back to grad school when he was given the rare opportunity to try out for the Chicago Bulls -- and he made the cut. Back then, Kerr said, in an interview with ESPN, he was pretty competitive. "I kind of played with a chip on my shoulder. I had to or I wouldn’t have made it.” This scrappy, focused attitude translates into his coaching as well. He takes nothing for granted and always puts in the work. The results have been phenomenal.
Leaders of all stripes are expected to prove it over and over again. A team won’t follow an untested leader, and that means rolling up your sleeves and using the chip on your shoulder to work harder and do more than even you ever thought possible.
The bottom line.
While there’s well-deserved focus on Curry and his on-court brilliance, business leaders should really model themselves after Kerr. Not everyone can be a once-in-a-generation player like Curry, but we can all strive to emulate Kerr’s brilliant coaching style. Moreover, we’re only as good as the team around us, and Kerr shows how to bring out everyone’s maximum performance.
It’s also no small thing that the Warriors themselves echo Kerr’s humble attitude and belief in teamwork when they speak individually. They clearly enjoy being around each other, and the results follow from there. Leaders can’t just surround themselves with brilliant people; they need to ensure the pieces work well together.
When he took over as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, Kerr broke the NBA record for the most regular season wins for a rookie coach. He was the first rookie coach to win a championship since Pat Riley in ‘82. And he beat his own ‘95 Bulls all-time greatest winning record this season. But it’s not luck that’s gotten him this far. It’s the fundamentals of his leadership style that carry him to record-breaking greatness and set such a great example for others aspiring to achieve greatness in their own careers.