Case studies

We have reproduced extracts from an interview with coach Mike Krzyzewski, who gave detailed insights into his leadership style and the challenges that he has faced within his programme at Duke University. The article is reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders. (


Teams increasingly are being relied upon to accomplish work both in corporations and a wide variety of other kinds of organizations. The quality of team leadership, whether from formal leaders or from other team members, is becoming increasingly important. Thus, the question “What does it take to foster and develop superb team leadership?” is a critically important one.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski has coached the Duke Men’s Basketball team since 1980 and has also been the head coach of the United States National Men’s Basketball Team. He is one of only three coaches in NCAA history to have won at least four National Men’s Division 1 basketball titles. He has also coached the USA Men’s team to both World Cup and Olympic Gold medals. The interview with coach Krzyzewski was structured around three questions:

1.How do you recruit and develop team leaders?

2.How do you create a context for team success?

3.How do you develop and sustain your own team leadership capacity?



You have had players who are quite different from each other, and one of your trademarks is how you adjust your system and strategy to the composition of your team each year. How do you go about that?

Let me illustrate with an example. In our most recent team, we had senior co-captains who were supposed to be our leaders. They had two different personalities. One, Kyle Singler, was not a verbal leader; he led through example, and I never asked him to do much more than that. I said, “You play hard and you practice hard all the time. But every once in a while, just say something to a teammate like ‘That’s good’ or in a huddle, say ‘Let’s go’”. If I asked him to do too much more verbally, I think it would have messed him up. In contrast, Nolan Smith was effervescent. He led us well on the road or in the locker room and on the court. But it was really difficult for him to confront somebody. So I also turned to the point guard and said, “During the game, you are okay to confront somebody.” And then, as a staff, we had to do more confrontation because the two guys we had, it didn’t fit their wheelhouse. I try to adjust my leadership based on who I have to help me lead the team.

You’ve said that each team leader should be asked to do different things depending on what their capabilities are. And you may be able to develop them, but you are not going to change who they are. How do you walk the fine line between encouraging them to develop new capabilities as a leader and accepting their liabilities?

I tried to meet twice a month with Kyle and Nolan, just empathizing with them, not trying to get them to be anybody different. I was concerned about insisting “You need to be this leader or that leader”. I wanted them to be a player too, and I didn’t want leading to conflict with their natural playing abilities. I think that is important. Like in a business, when somebody is promoted to a certain position, you say “I now need you to lead.” Well, the reason they are up there is because they’ve got certain abilities, whether they’re with sales, or whatever it is they do. We want them to keep their strengths while working on their leadership. I have had other guys who just led the whole team, and being a leader helped them become better players. But that is not always the case. I will tell you, it’s tough to find a lot of leaders.


Sometimes the best leaders are the youngest or newest team members. How do you encourage them to step forward while still showing respect for the more seasoned members of the team?

Leadership is plural, not singular, so there can be a number of leaders. You want to make sure that as you are developing your senior leaders, you don’t stifle a freshman who has great leadership qualities. You give them opportunities to help the older leader and then by the time they do get to be that older person, they are even better at what they do.

I think it’s important, before they even join the team, that I have seen them on their high school teams. So I already know this kid has leadership ability, he has good communication skills, he is somebody who could lead by example or verbally. And then I try to encourage those who I think would be potential leaders to help out even as freshmen. What I try to do is not assume that just because the oldest person is the oldest that he is the leader. You hope that they are because they have the most experience, but not everybody on a team is a leader or wants to be a leader.

Individuals do not always realise how others are looking to them for leadership. They don’t always realize how much power and influence they have, or that they have the ability to lead others. How do you help them see what they have to offer?

One of my best leaders by far of all time is Shane Battier, who went on to play in the NBA. In the first practice of his senior year, the team had finished stretching, and I’m getting ready to talk to them to give them a bit of motivation – just a little 1-minute talk. Before I start, Shane gets them together and he says some things to the team. I said, “That’s pretty good. I don’t think I can top that.” I told Shane after the workout, “That was good. If you want to do that every day, you can.” He said “I’ll do it every day.” I never again spoke to the team before practice for the rest of that year.

Here is another example. One of our standards is to show a strong face. When we watch tape, it’s not just watching how you shoot or defend. If I see a sequence where a player shows this magnificent face that’s strong, I’ll stop and say something about it. With the USA Men’s team I stopped the tape as Kevin Durant, a great young player who I wanted to emerge, was coming down the court. He looks magnificent; he’s just so strong. So I asked his teammate, Russell Westbrook, “When Kevin looks like that, how do you feel?” And he says “coach, when he looks like that, I feel like we’re going to win.” So I turned to Kevin and said, “Kevin, I want you to understand the power you have. Even before you shoot or defend, you can create an atmosphere where the people around you feel like they can win. How good is that, man?”

As you become more secure as a leader, it gets easier to share leadership, to empower others. Thank goodness I have had great leaders on the court for me. One of them is coaching at Harvard now, Tommy Amaker, a point guard who was a natural leader right from his freshman year, and then we had Quinn Snyder who also was a great leader. The more I got guys like that, the more I realized that I needed to give them more opportunities. It comes with experience.


When you started at Duke over 30 years ago, you didn’t already have a successful programme or a culture that fostered both winning and mutual respect. How did you get the right conditions in place, and how have you sustained them?

We could not have succeeded if I were not on a great team myself. By that I mean that Duke University was a great team under the leadership of Terry Sanford as president and Tom Butters as athletic director. I always felt that I was on their team and that has been true with every president and athletic director since then. I worked hard to develop a good relationship with them. Not that it has not been the other way around, expecting them to develop a good relationship with me. I knew how much I depended on them and needed their commitment while I was learning how to do this. I learned a great deal from them and the people around them.