Coach K’s perspective took a major turn when, having grown up in male-dominated cultures, he found himself outnumbered at home by his wife, Mickie, and their three daughters. Every night at dinner he observed how Mickie and the girls reconnected by sharing the details of their day, including how they felt about it. Whereas guys cut to the chase in conversations, Mickie and the girls invested time each day.
He also observed how attuned Mickie and the girls were to how people felt. Their intuition was like radar. Time and again, Mickie would sense when something was bothering one of Coach K’s players. She was nearly always right so he learned it was wise to follow up and ask the player if something was wrong. Sure enough, something was always amiss and talking about the problem made the player feel, and play, better. When he didn’t follow up, the player would be out of sync with the team and performance suffered.
Coach K’s “ah-ha” moment, his epiphany about the importance of connection and relationships, transformed his coaching style. He began involving Mickie and his daughters in the Duke men’s basketball program. The Krzyzewski women became, in military terms, a reconnaissance team to sense the state of relationships and emotions, and the sense of connection, community and unity among the team. They thought of the boys as extended members of their family. They hugged them. (Hugs have been found to boost the trust hormone oxytocin.) As Coach K became more intentional about developing the feeling of connection among the team, it helped produce superior results.
Consider a few of Coach K’s quotes that appeared in an excellent article from a few years ago:
- “Almost everything in leadership comes back to relationships”
- “When he recruits a player, Krzyzewski tells him, ‘We’re developing a relationship here, and if you are not interested, tell me sooner rather than later.’ That word — relationship — is one he uses frequently. [He tells players] ‘If you come here, for however long, you’re going to unpack your suitcase. We’re going to form a bond, and you’re going to be part of this family.’”
- “Game day is not a day for long, drawn-out speeches. It is a time for interaction.”
- “Know their names. You know what? Please and thank you go a long way. You can be damn sure that every guy on my team says that. The best way to get better as a team is if everyone has ownership, and if you do these things they will.”
The key to developing connection can be summarized in a simple, easy-to-remember formula: Vision + Value + Voice. When members of a group of any size, from a basketball team to a business organization, share a vision that makes them feel proud, feel valued, and feel that they have a voice to express their ideas and opinions, it creates a connection, a bond, a feeling of unity or esprit de corps.
In groups where connection is high, members give their best efforts (i.e. employee engagement) and they align their behavior with group goals (i.e. strategic alignment). When times get tough, as they periodically do, groups with connection pull together rather than tear one another apart. Connection is the force that differentiates a dog-eat-dog culture from a sled dog team that pulls together.
Duke’s men’s basketball has developed a sustainable competitive advantage thanks to Coach K and the lessons he’s learned from the women in his life.