10 Leadership Lessons From the Best NBA Coaches

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Many factors influence a basketball team’s performance; one of them is the head coach. The qualities of a coach, as well as their leadership style, will ultimately impact the outcome of a game. For example, NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have distinctly different approaches to leadership, yet each has helped lead has team to record-setting success.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Rider University Online Master of Arts in Athletic Leadership program.

How the lessons learned from top NBA coaches can help coaches and leaders attain success.

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The Best of Basketball

Since its founding in 1946, the NBA has nurtured and trained phenomenal players through the work of legendary coaches such as Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley.

Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson was the Chicago Bulls head coach from 1989 to 1998, and the Los Angeles Lakers head coach from 1999 to 2004 and 2005 to 2011. He compiled a regular season win-loss percentage of .704 during his 20-year coaching career, earning 11 NBA titles along the way – 6 with the Bulls, and 5 with the Lakers.

Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr has been the Golden State Warriors’ head coach since 2014. He has a win-loss winning percentage of .709, and he has earned three NBA championship titles as a coach. He also boasts the best five-year record in NBA history, with a stretch of 322-88.

Gregg Popovich

Gregg Popovich has been the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1997. He’s won 1,272 regular-season games as coach, giving him a win-loss percentage of .676. He also has five NBA championship titles as a coach.

Pat Riley

Pat Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers from 1981 to 1990, the New York Knicks from 1991 to 1995, and the Miami Heat from 1995 to 2008 – a total of 24 seasons. He had a win-loss percentage of .636 and has five NBA championships to his coaching credit: Four with the Lakers, and one with the Heat.

Careers of the Best NBA Coaches

Jackson, Kerr, Popovich and Riley all achieved success as head coaches, earning championships and respect.

Phil Jackson

Jackson played 12 seasons in the NBA, winning two championships as a player. When he became a coach, he used a new-age coaching style grounded in Eastern Philosophy and Native American mysticism. He also frequently gave his players reading assignments, led group mediation sessions and burned sage to break losing streaks. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Steve Kerr

Kerr played 15 seasons in the NBA and won five NBA championships as a player. He was coached by top coaches in his playing days, including Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. He created a presentation that “included segments on leadership, relationships, analytics, and everything from dress code to dieticians to yoga instructors to sleep specialists” to land the Warriors head coach position without prior coaching experience, according to Sports Illustrated. Kerr also impressed Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob with his list of potential assistant coaches, as it showed he wasn’t threatened by having talented people around him.

Gregg Popovich

Although Popovich didn’t play in the NBA, he did play basketball while attending the U.S. Air Force Academy. He was hired as the Spurs’ head coach without any prior NBA head coaching experience. Yet according to former Air Force head coach Hank Egan, Popovich “knows how to manage people, how to push the right buttons and who he can push, on and off the court.”

Pat Riley

Riley played in the NBA for nine years, winning one championship as a player. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, and is considered one of the most brash, charismatic and successful figures in basketball history.

Leadership Lessons from the Best NBA Coaches

Aspiring coaches and leaders across all industries and experiences levels can improve their leadership skills by applying certain leadership principles, drawn from the careers of four of the NBA’s best coaches.

5 Leadership Lessons for Aspiring Sports Coaches

A big lesson that can be learned from coaches is focusing on enhancing talent instead of just retaining that talent already there. It’s also important to build a culture of empowerment that encourages players to support each other. Another key tactic is to strategically unleash your anger, as research has shown that anger correlates with improved second-half performance when it’s used strategically. Additionally, it’s vital to see your players as people first as players second. Finally, it’s important that coaches trust the team and know when to step away.

5 Lessons for All Leaders

Leaders can learn to own their luck and not be afraid to admit when they’ve been handed exceptional talent. They should also take the time to do their own work, as it will make up for what they lack in natural talent. Leaders should also follow their intuitive nature and learn to lead from the inside out. Additionally, they should know how to deal with the highs and lows of their career. Finally, they should know when to hire an amateur with a positive personality instead of an expert with an attitude.

Success On and Off the Court

“Relationships with people are what it’s all about,” Gregg Popovich says. “You have to make players realize you care about them.” Leaders should value their players as human beings and nurture a healthy coach-athlete relationship.