Meet Steve Kerr
Many of you know that I invoke sports figures, especially coaches, as examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly of leadership. Many examples of effective leadership come from that world. Pete Carroll in the NFL, Buck Showalter and Joe Girardi in professional baseball and Greg Popovich in the NBA are examples of guys who exemplify specific and identifiable elements of leadership effectiveness that are worth noting.
My new sports leadership man-crush is Steve Kerr, who is the head coach of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Here’s his story and why you should care.
Steve Kerr’s Story
In college at the University of Arizona, Steve was an effective but unspectacular guard on the basketball team that won an NCAA championship. It wasn’t his physical skills that people most admired about Steve. His college coach, Hall of Famer Lute Olson, said that Steve was the smartest person and best leader he had ever coached. Notice he didn’t say smartest player, basketball-wise, but smartest PERSON. That intelligence wasn’t just “IQ intelligence;” it was a combination of wisdom (my definition of that: Wisdom = experience x reflection x relentless honesty x accountability x personal change) and intellectual curiosity. That curiosity began as a child. He was born in Lebanon, went to kindergarten in France and junior high school in Egypt. Living around the world gave Steve a cosmopolitan perspective. It also helped him dispel a myth under which all of us operated to one degree or another; that OUR truth is THE truth. His father Malcolm was a leading authority on the Middle East, and his mother still coordinates the Fulbright Scholarship Program at UCLA.
During his time at the University of Arizona, Steve made mental notes about the way Lute Olson coached. He (Olson) grouped players in dorms, invited them to his home for dinners and created a family atmosphere.
In 1984, Islamic terrorists assassinated Steve’s father Malcolm at the American University of Beirut, where he was President. In a decision that began Kerr’s legend at Arizona, he suited up and played in a game against Arizona State just two days later, saying that he couldn’t do anything about his father’s death and that he (his dad) would’ve wanted him to honor his commitment to play. From John Feinstein who wrote about this in his book A Season Inside: “It is difficult to imagine the emotion of that evening. Even with Arizona’s arch-rival in the building, few people in the McKale Center that night were really focused on basketball. The violence of the shooting that had taken place thousands of miles away was tangible as everyone stood in silence. Kerr broke down. So did many in the crowd.”
Steve ended up playing for a few NBA teams, including the Chicago Bulls, where he played a key role on three championship teams (having Michael Jordan as a teammate didn’t hurt), and on the San Antonio Spurs, where teams he was a part of won two championships. From Greg Popovich, the San Antonio Coach and a certain future inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame: “People gravitate to him. In our program, we try to be straightforward – no Knute Rockne speeches, no blown smoke, no manipulations. This is what you do well, this is what you do poorly, here’s your role. And add humor. Always humor. Steve has a great sense of humor – refined, honest, and self-deprecating when it needs to be.”
From Popovich and Phil Jackson, his other future Hall of Fame coach with the Bulls, Steve learned that 90% of coaching is creating an environment. The other 10% involves strategy. Steve calls that “the easy part.”
After his playing days, Steve became team President of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. During that time, he worked with David Griffin, who is now the General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Per Griffin: “Basketball was the sum total of my life. I threw myself into the job to such a degree that I had absolutely no balance whatsoever. Steve made me understand that I had nothing to prove to him. He made me comfortable living in a way that was meaningful to me. He made me a radically better human being.” One evening when the Suns were on the road, Steve discovered that Griffin had watched the game from home instead of traveling. “I’m proud of you,” he told him.
In his final game as Phoenix GM, Steve witnessed a collision between a player and photographer that resulted in the latter being strapped to a gurney and taken to the hospital. He bolted from his chair to be of help and asked whom he could personally call on behalf of the injured guy.
After his tenure as a GM, Steve partnered with Marv Albert, broadcasting NBA games for TNT. He interviewed coaches and kept notes on the shirt cardboards that came back from the dry cleaner in his shirts. A lot of those notes couldn’t be used during broadcasts. He intended to use them at some point if (and more likely WHEN) he became an NBA coach.
When he departed TNT after the 2013-2014 season, he entertained a number of feelers and offers. He could have gone to the Knicks in New York or the Cavaliers (before he knew whether they were going to re-sign LaBron). He chose to go to the Golden State Warriors, a team on the cusp of competing for a championship.
During his first year as coach, Steve took the Warriors to the NBA championship, which was their first in 40 years. The last coach to win a title during his first year was Bill Russell, who was a player and coach of the Boston Celtics in 1969.
A few more anecdotes about Steve:
He’s an avid reader with diverse taste. After a tough game on the road, he often defers reviewing game video and dives into a novel on the flight home. After that and a glass of his favorite wine, he’ll review game video on his iPad.
He surfs and cooks.
Every summer he stays with a friend at a cheap motel or in a tent in Baja “chillin’.”
One of his favorite questions of friends and colleagues: “What’s your ZFL level?” (ZFL = zest for life)
In one of his first acts as a coach, he halted a boring team staff meeting and ordered his lieutenants into assistant Luke Walton’s SUV. They drove to Muir Beach and jumped into a VERY cold Pacific Ocean.
He cancels some team practices in favor of bowling tournaments or football games.
He will, on occasion, show video of bloopers from his career as a coach as well as those of his assistant coaches.
When he was named Head Coach of the Warriors, he flew to the homes of each of his players to meet them individually and personally.
Leadership Lessons from Steve Kerr
He’s self-effacing. It’s important for leaders to demonstrate vulnerability and a “we’re all in this together” attitude. Steve’s humility and sense of humor creates an example of that for his team.
He’s authentic. I’m not crazy about buzz-words or buzz-phrases. The word “authentic” has become one of those. In Steve’s case, however, it’s substantial. He is the same EVERYWHERE and with EVERYONE. His style is his substance. Too many leaders try to adopt the styles of others; they are different in different venues or with different people. They seem to have the philosophy that “authenticity is everything; if you can fake that, you have it made!”
He’s multi-cultural in orientation. I know leaders of Fortune 500 companies who have never ventured beyond our borders. They suffer from cultural myopia.
He knows how to relax, and he understands the priority of doing so. Psychological masochism isn’t honorable or wise for leaders. Many, however, revel in their unmitigated stress.
He’s a student; he reads constantly and believes that all learning is relevant. He DOES immerse himself in the technical aspects of the game, but he does NOT limit his interest or learning to that. To him, in-depth expertise in basketball strategy and tactics is NECESSARY, but INSUFFICIENT.
He’s a “servant leader.” He views the organizational pyramid upside down. He believes that his job exists to help the organization and team members to be successful, not to provide himself with a venue to exert power.
His first championship as a coach won’t be his last.