Is your leadership random? [Future of Leadership Letter – May 2020]

“So how are you going to coach your team?”

The question caught NBA coach Steve Kerr off guard.

Kerr is a legend in the NBA world. Before he was a coach, he was a player.

A great player.

Kerr is a trailblazer. Yeah, he was a Portland Trailblazer for one season but he was also on the leading edge of basketball. 

Kerr earned five championship rings among two different teams that included the famous 1996 Chicago Bulls. Kerr is one of only two non-Boston Celtics players to win four straight NBA titles. And Kerr is the NBA’s all-time three-point percentage leader. He played in 910 games over 16 seasons and when he was done playing basketball he went on to became an NBA broadcaster.

Steve Kerr knows basketball. But on this day in 2014, the answer to a fundamental question about basketball eluded him.

When Kerr was just getting into NBA coaching, he reached out to Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks to talk coaching. Carroll invited Kerr up to Seattle to watch a Seahawks football practice. The question came up in their chat afterward. 

“You mean like what offense we are going to run?” Kerr thought Carroll was asking about different strategies.

“No, that stuff doesn’t really matter.”

Carroll was trying to dig deeper. He wanted to understand the underlying model that drives the strategies among so many other things. He wanted to learn Kerr’s philosophy. Kerr stumbled with the question.

I was out walking while listening to the podcast conversation between these two coaches. Storms were coming in from the south and I could hear distant thunder. I picked up my pace. 

As I walked I thought about how I would answer Pete’s question if I were sitting across the desk from him. I realized I was also stumbling. 

“How are you going to coach your team?”

Have you ever had that experience when you hear somebody talk and you know what all the individual words mean but you come away from the conversation with nothing? Like trying to bite a cloud. That is probably what my response to Carroll would have felt like. A number of good but uncoordinated thoughts jammed into an off-the-cuff response.

I don’t coach on the field but I do consider myself a coach in my profession. The two activities are very different but they are rooted in the same soil. As I continued thinking about how I would answer his question, Carroll caught my attention with a story about one of his mentors, Coach Bill Walsh of San Francisco 49ers football lore. 

Bill Walsh is a three-time Super Bowl champion coach with a 92 win and 59 loss record over 10 seasons with the 49ers in the 1980s. Back then Pete Carroll was an assistant coach working under Walsh.

Carroll recalled their conversations and how Walsh mentored him during those early years. “What came through wasn’t really any of the specific particulars. It was that he knew what he was doing, and he knew how he wanted his program to go.”

Bill Walsh would have been able to clearly answer the question.

For off-the-field coaches like you and I, answering the question well is more important now because it reveals our leadership philosophy. If you don’t have a leadership philosophy yet, Carroll has some thoughts on why you might consider developing one. 

“Every time you deal with any situation, you are making a statement about who you are and what you are. They [players, your team, your clients] are going to watch you. Do you really believe in something or are you just dealing with things randomly.”

Have I been dealing with things randomly? The thought bothered me because it might be true. I thought about it more before it clicked. If we aren’t working from some internal model, some philosophy, then we can only be acting randomly. 

To be clear, random in this case doesn’t mean haphazard. It does mean that at worst we are making decisions based only on the variables of the situation. At best we are making decisions based on the variables of the situation but tempered by previous experience.

Either way it’s at least 100 miles from good enough.


Carroll: “One of the biggest pitfalls is lack of consistency. To be consistent you have to be going with what you know [emphasis his]…It matters that you are clear. Do you have your sense of it. Those questions need to be asked of yourself to figure that out. 

“And you’ve got to get to the point where you’re clear about what you stand for, so you can give these guys the best shot and not have any distractions in their brain…You have got to clear the air because you have to get these guys to perform. We have got to get all the garbage out of the way.”

Upon reflection I distilled it down:

Leadership that lacks a personal philosophical framework necessarily creates distractions that keep you and your team from doing your best work.

The lightning strikes that were in the distance moved closer. I kept my pace up. The Universe seemed to be putting an exclamation on the morning’s lesson. I returned to the question.

“So how are you going to coach your team?”

What I realized is that I don’t have to start from scratch. I simply need to arrange what I have into something clean, complete, and coherent. That’s what Carroll did. 

I also realized that lacking a philosophy at this point in my career isn’t a point of shame.

Pete Carroll, who knows football inside and out, had been coaching for years before he focused on developing his philosophy. His push to get it clean, complete, and coherent came well into his career after he was fired as the head coach of the New England Patriots. 

Steve Kerr, who has lived Basketball for decades, hadn’t focused on it until he was put on the spot by Carroll as a new coach.

Maybe the lights are just now turning on for you as they did for me. 

What I realized is that even the best among us get so caught up in doing the work that they don’t think about how that work ought to be done in the first place. 

Our blind spot may now be an opportunity—as Carroll’s philosophy states—to “do things better than they have ever been done before.”

So, how are you going to coach your team?

by Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan is the Head Coach at Sandcastle Company, a Seattle-based leadership training organization. His first book, Future Leader: Rebooting Leadership to Win the Millennial and Tech Future [link], is now available. Jonathan regularly writes and speaks about The New Leader Way, leadership resilience, and the future of work. He has years of leadership experience in both the public and private sectors, a master's degree from Seattle University, and professional coach training from the University of Miami.
Published on May 31, 2020

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