What Steve Kerr and the Warriors Teach Us About Leadership

Steve Kerr let his Warriors players coach themselves in a game on national television (NBA TV) Monday night. It was exactly the kind of game where shaking things up a bit might prevent a disastrous Trap Game loss against a far weaker opponent.

It worked. Golden State beat the Phoenix Suns 129-83.

It also caused an uproar on Twitter and on the NBA TV broadcast itself. In particular, former Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell took umbrage at the “disrespect” shown to the Suns:

Meanwhile, Kerr explained that it was about getting the players engaged:

This is a fantastic move by Kerr. Not only does it give the players a break from hearing the coaches’ same old voice night in and night out after three straight Finals appearances, two titles, and a very real risk of losing engagement over a long regular season, it’s got a bunch of follow-on benefits.

For one thing, anyone in business can tell you that an employee who has more ownership over their own workflow is going to be an employee who develops a vested interest in their own success and therefore the success of the company.

For another, it forces the players to think about the game like coaches, coming up with a strategy and then going out and executing that strategy. It gives them an appreciation of the thought that goes into drawing up the plays, so they know exactly what they’re doing out there on the floor.

And finally, it gives the players a reason to work harder out on the floor itself, since they’re not only coming up with the plays, but nobody wants to be the guy who let his teammates down by missing a rotation or not getting to an assigned spot on the floor. It fosters team cohesion because now you’ve got guys who aren’t necessarily just letting the coaching staff down. They’re letting down the guys they share the immediate common goal of winning through actual play.

No amount of rah-rah from the sideline is going to bridge that divide. Even if the coaches and players both benefit from winning, in a war, there’s a big difference between a general and a grunt. Blurring that line and making the grunts into generals for a day reminds everyone what they’re fighting for.

And, of course, with that mindset put into them, the Warriors didn’t just win, they embarrassed their opponent and beat the Suns by 46 points.

Not every team can do this, though.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue joked that if he were to try handing control over to the players, all it would do would be to reinforce the popular joke that LeBron James is the actual coach of the Cavs and that Lue is nothing but a figurehead.

But on the other hand, in Boston, Brad Stevens often lets the players run the practices, figuring that the team can learn more from each other than they can learn from simply being commanded like a drill sergeant in basic:

And it’s also worth noting that the Warriors and Celtics are teams with strong veteran leadership, teams where guys either interact as equals at the top of the food chain (like the Warriors’ Big Four) or through guys like Al Horford and Kyrie Irving using their career as winning players with All-Star caliber ability to inspire the younger guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to be the best they can be and represent the “Celtic Pride” that is the cornerstone of the organization’s culture.

The point is that letting the guys actually doing the work have a say in how the work is done is good management when it’s done in business.

And what’s good business also seems to be good basketball.