3 Leadership Takeaways from Duke’s Coach K

By Yvonne Milosevic

If you’re a college basketball fan still mourning the loss of spring competition due to COVID-19, this post might offer some small comfort, especially if you’re a Blue Devils fan. Duke University’s famed basketball coach Mike Kryzewski (aka Coach K.) recently chatted with Fuqua School of Business Dean Bill Boulding about leadership and resilience as part of Fuqua’s Distinguished Speaker Series.  

Coach K., for the uninitiated, has won more games than any other coach in the history of his division, including five national championships. He also led the U.S. Olympic basketball teams to three gold medals.

Coach K
Coach K. talks to his team during a timeout.

As Duke’s head coach since 1980, he has seen his share of challenges and triumphs.  His hour-long conversation with the dean goes deep into basketball, life, and COVID-19. Here, we share his leadership nuggets that anyone can put into practice, no matter your industry or function.

Tip 1: Be smart in the moment.

The kind of smarts Coach K. values has more to do with instincts than books. It’s easy to be an “armchair quarterback” and share your wisdom and opinions after the fact. The trick is honing your ability to react the right way when it counts, he explains, as we see with legends such as LeBron James, Christian Laettner, or the late Kobe Bryant.

Don’t walk out of the room saying, They should have done X, Y, and Z. If you thought that, you should have said it right then, says Coach K. “I call it having the courage to follow your instincts in that moment.”

Tip 2: Stay positive and motivated.

As a cadet at West Point, the biggest lesson he learned was that “failure is not your destination,” Coach K. shares. Whenever you’re down, it’s an opportunity to get better. Next, you have to remain flexible, adapting to the realities of the moment and not bemoaning what was or will never be, he says. So, ask yourself, “What is going to be, and how do we prepare for it?”

“You have to have the single biggest thing that is given to each human being, and that’s the attitude,” Coach K. notes. “You are the owner of your attitude.”

Tip 3: Lean on others.

Coach K. says he used to be a micromanager back in the early 1990s.Basically, I was a wheel, and there were spokes, and they all had to go through me,” he explains. “When I wasn’t there, the wheel fell apart.” Realizing that wasn’t effective leadership, Coach K. started building the basketball program based on connecting everywhere.

“If one person is down for a little bit, we still go,” he says. Take each other with you for the win because “winning is making the best out of any situation you’re in.”


This video chat between Coach K. and Dean Boulding is a lot of fun for any college basketball fan. If that’s you, follow the link above to watch their whole conversation.