Leadership Lessons from Steve Kerr

May 22, 2017

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The subtitle of my most recent book (Making Meetings Matter) is “How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age.”

The key words in that phrase are “Leaders,” “Orchestrate,” and “Digital Age.” My premise is relatively simple: in the digital age, we all have access to tons of information; the most important work activity today is information-based; and the role of leaders is to enable – or “orchestrate” – conversations that help those knowledge workers exchange ideas, collaborate, and build new knowledge.

Simple, right? Well, it may be easy to describe but it’s highly challenging to pull off. And, as I have observed several times, the best examples of digital-age leadership that I know are the orchestra conductor and the professional sports coach.

In both cases the leaders’ “staff” are highly skilled individual contributors whose efforts must be coordinated and aggregated to produce a group outcome – either beautiful music or competitive success. And, especially with sports teams, most team members earn significantly more than their “boss.”

Given all that, I was inspired today to write – again – about one of the most effective organizational leaders I know – Steve Kerr, the head coach of the San Francisco Warriors’ NBA basketball team (see “Strength in Numbers: Growing Power by Sharing It” for an earlier homage to Kerr’s leadership skills).

I was reminded again of Kerr’s genius by an article in the San Francisco Chronicle this morning, “Steve Kerr’s input invaluable to Warriors,” by Scott Ostler.

As you may know, Kerr has been unable to coach the last half-dozen or so Warriors post-season games because of a lingering discomfort stemming from back surgery three years ago. He continues to experience migraine headaches, backaches, and other debilitating symptoms. He has stepped back from active coaching and turned over the day-to-day and on-court coaching duties to assistant coach Mike Brown.

At this point in the NBA playoffs (with the Warriors sweeping the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals and ready for the NBA Championship beginning June 1), this strategy has worked well. Kerr had already instilled in the Warriors’ players and staff a culture of unselfishness and commitment to each other that I believe is unlike that of any other NBA team.

The Warriors led the league all year in Assists (which are awarded to a player who makes a pass that sets up a score by one of his teammates) – a perfect measure of their commitment to the team rather than to themselves as individuals.

Kerr is gradually regaining his strength, and he is now attending Warriors practices, but he remains off the court during the games. He is comfortable delegating in-the-moment decisions to Mike Brown, and over the last few games he has met with the team in the locker room at halftime to offer advice and guidance.

From Scott Ostler in the Chronicle article:

“I asked assistant coach Ron Adams how the Warriors have managed to tiptoe through the minefield of this unique coaching situation….

‘He had some pertinent things to say at halftime [Saturday],’ Adams said, ‘and we want his planning input. He’s looking at the game from a different viewpoint than we are [at courtside]. He’s a little detached; he’s got a great view of the game.”

Here is what for me is the heart of Kerr’s leadership accomplishment, again from assistant coach Ron Adams:

He’s giving this team a lot. He’s empowered this team. They have ideas, they have thoughts, you have to be kind of on the same page with those thoughts, and at the same time you have to be a leader. You have to understand what you’ve created, what your small group’s thought processes are, and be able to guide them and lead then, and this is what he does extremely well….”

There are at least three key reasons why I consider Steve Kerr a 21st-century leadership role model:

  1. He is focused on the team, not on individual stars. He’s built a star team rather than a team of individual stars. The organizational parallel is, to quote author Rod Collins, “Nobody is smarter than everybody.” Kerr has built a culture of caring, sharing, and “team first.” Players are genuinely excited to see their teammates make a great play.
  2. He listens to everyone’s thoughts, incorporates them into his strategy, and gives credit to everyone but himself (by the way, back in 2015 when the Warriors won the NBA title, the idea to start Andre Iguodala instead of Andew Bogut in the critical last two games came from a junior staffer who no one outside the team had ever heard of; you can read more about that example of leadership here).
  3. He is not a micro-manager; when he was caught on camera advising the team at half-time on Saturday, he was focusing on strategy and attitude – the tone of the game, not individual tactics. He knows they are good at what they do; he just helps them think beyond the moment; he focuses on the Why and lets the team deliver the What and the How.

No matter how well the Warriors end up this year, we are fortunate that Steve Kerr is leading in a public setting; his lessons are there for us to admire and learn from several times a week – at least through the end of the season.

By the way, for a genuine in-depth story of Steve Kerr’s background and values, see “Tragedy Made Steve Kerr See the World Beyond the Court,” by John Branch (New York Times, December 22, 2016)

And for a much more comprehensive analysis of his skill as a coach and a leader, read this article by Chris Ballard in Sports Illustrated: Steve Kerr’s Absence: The True Test of a Leader.” (May 16, 2107)

Don’t face the future alone. Jim Ware designs collaborative conversations that enable organizational leaders to make sense out of the future.

Contact Jim today, or call him right now at +1 510.558.1434 to learn how his workshops, keynote presentations, and expertise in orchestrating powerful conversations can put the future to work for you.


Download "Leadership Lessons from Steve Kerr" as a PDF

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bary Sheman May 23, 2017 at 11:53 am


Well said!

I wish there were more leaders who demonstrated the qualities you just described in Steve Kerr.

Thanks, Bary


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: