Leading Leaders: The Secret to Performance


Coaches set the course but leaders drive the ship


The opening quote from Phil Jackson captures the truth of this reality. Coaches are better described as guides than captains. Guides can provide vision and direction for the vessel, but the driving force that moves the ship from one place to another is dependent on the captain. The influence of a coach’s ability to lead their team is directly correlated to the leadership ability of their most important players. Of course it’s not true that your most talented players are always your best leaders – although when this is the case remarkable things can happen – but without exception you most influential players need to be your best leaders (if you want to be successful).

Leaders drive the ship because by definition leaders carry great influence. Leaders create followers, which allows them to241105_cr_07_013 influence those around them in one direction or another. Make no mistake; the leaders on your team are pushing their teammates towards a particular destination by their attitude, words, and body language. As a coach it is your responsibility to lead your leaders. The success of your team hinges on your ability to share a common purpose and vision with the most influential players on your team. Lead your leaders, because your leaders drive the ship.


Speed of the leader, speed of the team

The pace at which your leader moves determines the pace your team approaches its goals. A team can never enter the land of excellence unless the leader breaks ground first. When leaders forge ahead in their responsibilities, leadership, and expectations they force the rest of the team to rise to their level. If you have leaders that are determined to never plateau, there is a great chance your team will never plateau. In the words of Coach K, “your team is going to go a lot further if your stars push ahead and everybody else has to catch up.”

Kobe Bryant’s quote highlights the reality that many coaches believe their time is best spent trying to raise the level of the other players to meet the standard of the leader. This belief is founded on the assumption that leaders don’t need to be challenged or motivated – many times because leaders are natural self-motivators – as much as “non-leaders” on the team. On the contrary, the quickest way for the entire team to raise its level of performance is for leaders to raise their level of performance. The speed of the leader always determines the speed of the group. Learn to motivate and inspire your leaders to new levels of performance and you can be sure the entire team will follow.



Coaches can Create rules but Leaders set Standards

The distinction between rules and standards comes down to the question of influence. Coaches can make a list of rules that point to a standard of behavior they desire for their team, but rules only become standards if/when they are incarnated by the leaders. Coaches have the ability to enforce their rules during team activities: practice, film sessions, public outings, and games. But their influence is unable to affect the private moments in the life of every team when rules become standards and standards start to create culture.quote1

Leaders are standard creators and standard enforcers because of their influence. Their attitudes are contagious and set the tone for the entire organization. The inner behavioral realities, which all rules attempt to communicate, live or die with leaders. The standards and unwritten demeanor of conduct are given life by those with the most influence. Leaders always set the tone, timbre, and tendencies of your team’s culture.


by: Steve Lipofsky
by: Steve Lipofsky

Win the leader Win the team

The great runs of sustained excellence in sports history are rarely void of a unique relationship between a coach and their best players. Most iconic NBA coaches were successful because they understood their influence on the team was largely dependent on their relationship with their most important leaders. NBA history is littered with player/coach duos that are synonymous with greatness: Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich, Magic Johnson and Pat Riley, Bill Russell and Red Auerbach.

It is popular hyperbole to say the thrust of an NBA coach’s job is to “manage personalities”, but consider this quote from Phil Jackson (talking with “Inside Stuff”) on coaching Michael Jordan: “Being Michael’s coach has been an unmitigated joy. But even more important than our professional relationship, I consider Michael to be a friend.” Jackson understood there was not any relationship more important than the one he had with Michael. He knew that if he and Jordan were able to get on the same page, the rest of the team would follow. Jackson knew his influence on Michael would correlate to his influence on the rest of the team. Win your leaders and you’ll win your team.


Sitkan, Sim, and Richard Hackman. “Developing Team Leadership: An Interview with Coach Mike Krzyzewski.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 10.3 (2011): 494-501. Web.

Inside Stuff (via NBA.com). “Michael and Me: Phil Jackson Airs his Thoughts about Michael Jordan.” (1998)

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