This weekend, legendary basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski will lead his Duke Blue Devils on the hardwood for a final time. In his 42 years as Duke’s head coach, Coach K has led my alma mater to five national titles and won countless accolades, including being named the 2011 “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. He has been an exemplar of excellence throughout his career, and I believe that—even beyond the glory of his teams’ wins—it is his legacy of leadership that will most vividly endure. What’s more, the example he has set can be instructive for all of us across vocations and sectors.
I have been privileged to get to know Coach K and to learn from him for the last two decades as a Senior Fellow at the Fuqua-Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke. He has inspired new ideas around such important topics as building teams, cultivating character, nurturing and transforming cultures of organizations, and motivating others to encourage them to bring their best selves to the service of a larger purpose.
One story Coach K told about a mutual friend, Tom Butters, stands out to me. Duke’s longtime Athletic Director, Tom hired Coach K in 1980, and served as AD for another two decades, forming a close friendship with Coach K through the years. When Tom died in 2016, I was asked by Tom’s widow to preside at the memorial service, and Coach K was scheduled to speak, even though he was recovering from major knee surgery. During the service he talked about how much Tom had shaped his vocation and his life. He recalled that at key moments in his career—his hiring, the time in 1983 when there was a clamoring for him to be fired, in 1995 when he had to step aside from coaching due to back problems, and then toward the end of Tom’s life as they would visit—Tom’s support and encouragement remained constant.
Coach K concluded his remarks by saying…
“In each of those situations, Tom Butters said the four most powerful words that anyone can say to a person… I BELIEVE IN YOU.” Visibly moved, Coach K then turned to the large congregation gathered and said, “When you leave this place today, find someone who needs to hear those words from you, and tell them those powerful words… I BELIEVE IN YOU.”
It was an amazing moment, a sign of Coach K’s gifts as a storyteller, a motivator and a reminder of how much he values relationships and friendship.
I will enjoy this final weekend of basketball with this legend and basketball mastermind, even as I will continue to draw on his wisdom and friendship as I seek to become a better leader and person each day. I hope you will honor Coach K and his legacy of leadership by finding someone today and telling them, “I believe in you!”