Joy, Humor and “Getting Over Yourself”: Values-Based Coaching in the NBA

Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich are two of the most successful coaches in the NBA. Kerr won five NBA championships playing for the Bulls and Spurs and now coaches the Golden State Warriors. Popovich won five championships as coach of the Spurs, including two with Kerr as one of his most productive players.

Today, both coaches are widely respected as two of the best coaches in professional sports. Beyond winning together as a player-coach pair, these two men share a similar approach to coaching: Values-based leadership.

Popovich (L) and Kerr (R) share a lighthearted moment before a 2014 regular season game

Popovich (L) and Kerr (R) share a lighthearted moment before a 2014 regular season game

Kerr began coaching the Warriors in 2014. From the start, he built his team’s culture around four leadership values: joy, mindfulness, compassion and competition. To develop this list, Kerr combined his experience as an NBA player, executive and broadcaster with direct input from the Warriors players. The influence of joy on the team’s output is clear - Steph Curry dances after made three-pointers, Draymond Green emotes after every big defensive play and Kevin Durant, a new addition to the team this year, is frequently quoted saying how much fun he’s having playing for his new organization.

Over in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich is heralded as the coach who knows how to spot and develop “character” in the players he coaches. When pressed on how he’s able to identify a strong “character” in a young player, he bristles, saying that character is really a collection of specific, valuable traits that he and his staff can identify. For example, he lists Tim Duncan’s sense of humor as one of the reasons he was such a great player to coach: “Having a sense of humor is huge to me and to our staff because I think if people can’t be self-deprecating or laugh at themselves or enjoy a funny situation, they have a hard time giving themselves to the group.”

Humility is another one of Coach Pop’s key values. The Spurs have a phrase they use to evaluate new players, “Has he gotten over himself?”. The answer helps the coaching staff measure a player’s work ethic, humbleness and acceptance of his role. “Getting over himself” means that a player understands how his skills and limitations help or hinder the team’s ability to win. This concepts drives the way the Spurs attract veteran NBA players in free agency. Year after year their roster grows with superstar talents signing for less than maximum money to play a lesser role (fewer shots, fewer minutes, less media spotlight) for the chance to work alongside like-minded teammates devoted to winning an NBA championship.

Kerr won two NBA championships (1999, 2003) while playing in San Antonio under Popovich

Kerr won two NBA championships (1999, 2003) while playing in San Antonio under Popovich

Joy, a sense of humor, humility. These are the values espoused by highly successful NBA coaches. Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr use these concepts to contextualize the demands they place on the highly-skilled people they lead. These values form the lens through which they evaluate and solve challenges in the complex and highly scrutinized world of professional basketball.

A values based leadership approach also works well for people working outside the world of sports. Here’s a thought exercise you can do to start developing your own list of professional values. The next time you have five free minutes, ask yourself the following:

  • What are the values you use to guide the way you work?
  • What are the common traits and characteristics of your favorite colleagues?
  • Which traits in your colleagues frustrate you?
  • When faced with a challenge, which of your own values help you organize the way you plan your response?

As a personal challenge, try to articulate your own list of 3-5 professional values. If you feel comfortable, do this with a colleague or friend and compare your lists. Do these values line up with the values of the organization you work for? If they don’t, what can you do to start a discussion to bring these values to the forefront of your work?