On Managing with Bobby Knight and “Coach K”

Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski are arguably the two most successful college basketball coaches in the country. But their leadership styles could not be more different. Professor Scott Snook wonders: Is it better to be loved or feared?
by Sean Silverthorne

"Is it better to be loved or feared?" Machiavelli asked.

At Harvard Business School, Professor Scott Snook uses this classic quote to help students become more effective leaders. Using two of the most successful college basketball coaches in history—coaches with as divergent leadership practices as can be imagined—Snook asks students to confront their basic assumptions about human nature, motivation, and preferred styles of leading.

Bobby Knight, also known as "The General," is the head coach at Texas Tech University. He's a fiery, in-your-face taskmaster who leads through discipline and intimidation, which some critics say goes too far. Knight was fired from a long career at Indiana University for grabbing a student, and prior to that he was filmed clutching one of his own players by the neck. And then there was the infamous incident during a game when Knight tossed a folding chair across the court to protest a referee's call.

Mike Krzyzewski, also known as Coach K, leads the men's basketball program at Duke University. Instead of fear, Krzyzewski relies heavily on positive reinforcement, open and warm communication, and caring support. For Coach K, "It's about the heart, it's about family, it's about seeing the good in people and bringing the most out of them," says Snook.

Different styles, yes, but the results are similar: After long careers, both have similar win-loss records for their teams and are acknowledged as top coaches in the collegiate ranks. So what do Knight and Krzyzewski tell us about leadership?

Weaving these two tales together is Snook, who coincidentally experienced Knight face-to-face in a high school basketball camp and observed a young Coach "K" lead Army's basketball team while he was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Using case studies (see links below), Snook's students are introduced to the coaches at pivotal moments: Knight has just been fired from Indiana and is unrepentant about his behavior. Krzyzewski is mulling a big-bucks offer to coach the professional Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Supporting material shows film clips of some of the more notorious Knight moments as well as Coach K's press conference after turning down the Lakers job. Students come away with a deep sense of each coach's personal beliefs and values.

The stage is set for students to explore their own fundamental assumptions about leadership and human nature. Are people basically lazy or energetic? What motivates people to do their best? What is the most effective style of leading? Is it better to be loved or feared?

Leading From Within

What you believe about human nature, says Snook, influences your leadership style. "If you believe people are fundamentally good—good meaning that they're trying to do their best, they're self-motivated, they want to perform—then your fundamental leadership style will be one way. It will be empowering them, getting obstacles out of the way, and setting high goals while maintaining standards.

"If you believe people are fundamentally bad—if you believe people are constantly looking to get over and get by and won't do anything unless they're watched—then you'll tend to lead with a very transactional management style that's built primarily around rewards and punishments. Tight supervision, a controlling type of leadership style characterized by a great deal of social distance between leaders and led."

That's what you want to do, to get people to broaden the stylistic repertoire.

Soon, Snook's students are reflecting on their own beliefs about human nature and leadership.

And they are also contemplating this question: Knight or Krzyzewski, whom would you hire? While the deck seems stacked in favor of Coach K, at least under today's standards of behavior, some interesting perspectives come forth in the classroom. The class learns that many of Knight's former players love the man like a father, and that students demonstrated en masse at Indiana when Knight was fired. When asked how Knight and Krzyzewski are alike, students say that both are passionate, disciplined, technically competent, and deeply care for their players beyond the basketball court.

Feelings about Knight also follow generational lines. While younger students often see Knight as little more than a bully, older participants tell stories of doing their best work under a mentor with Coach Knight's tough-love approach. Some also recall their experiences as managers when a stern approach helped set an employee on a more productive course.

Soon, many students are rethinking their position. "The ones that say they couldn't imagine learning from someone like a Coach Knight, they hear these stories and start questioning, 'Well, maybe there is another way of thinking about leading,'" Snook says. "And that's what you want to do, to get people to broaden the stylistic repertoire not only of themselves, but to consider that there are alternative ways of influencing people, and that different people respond to different styles."

Sure, Knight's older-generation, throw-the-chair leadership style has gone out of favor, but a disciplined, top-down approach can still be effective in particular situations. Some employees work better when structure is imposed on them, Snook observes. "It's the understanding that 'I work better, I will perform better, I'll make more money if somebody gives me a pay-per-perform'" work environment, says Snook. Others crave autonomy or teamwork.

"The ultimate lesson is, what kind of person am I, and then what are the implications of my underlying assumptions for how I lead, and the kind of organizations and the type of situations I'm more effective in? It's not like one's better, one's worse."

Knight Teaches A Lesson

Snook got an early lesson in management style face-to-face with Bobby Knight.

"I was in high school, and what I remember was he'd throw all the balls out [of the gym] and lock the doors. He'd only do defensive positioning drills. As a young kid all you want to do is shoot the ball and play games. But for a half day, he would just have us doing defensive positioning drills, never touching a basketball, and he'd run around and cuss us out and keep us in the right defensive position. It was all about drills, it was all about discipline. In retrospect, he got us to work on the fundamentals of basketball, the things we didn't want to do. We dreaded the day that he would come to camp. In the end he made us all better defensive players because of it."

The story also illustrates the importance of matching management style with the task (or employee) at hand.

"There are skills in the workplace that you only get through repetition, drill, habit, and discipline. A lot of times we're not real good at those," Snook continues. "So having an external force, whether it's a leader or a compensation system, forces you to do something you wouldn't ordinarily do, the mundane things that make you a better person, a better leader, or a better basketball player. Coach Knight was good at it. There was no question that his approach to teaching defensive positioning drills was probably more effective than if Coach K had come in for half a day and tried to inspire us to keep our butts down and our palms out."

On the classroom board, Snook draws three ovals. "The first oval is who you are. The middle oval, which overlaps a little bit, is how you lead, your style. The third overlapping oval is the situation."

Leaders who can recognize and call upon all three areas can expand their range of management styles to meet the needs of the situation, Snook says. "That could be an individual subordinate who needs more structure, or less structure, or more love, more challenge, or more support. Increasing your ability to accurately read relevant situational demands, understand more clearly your own assumptions about human nature, and then appropriately adapt 'how you lead,' your style, is a life-long process."

In the end he made us all better defensive players because of it.

For hiring managers, one lesson is to understand the dominant type of motivation supported by your corporate culture and hire people who thrive in those situations. Be clear in hiring interviews what the situation is, says Snook. "Don't come here if you're not into teamwork. Don't come here if you don't like working and collaborating. Whatever it is. Be clear in the interview and you'll attract those kinds of people. It's back to the model about being more self-aware and, at the organizational level, more aware of what your predominant culture is. Then you translate that into who you attract, select, hire, socialize, promote, and fire."

There is another interesting intersection of the dramatis personae in this tale of two coaches.

In the late 1960s, Coach Knight was the basketball coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he recruited a young player named Mike Krzyzewski. "Coach K was a young, scrappy kid. He wasn't the best athlete on the team, but he had a lot of leadership potential," Snook says. After Krzyzewski left the Army, he joined Knight as a graduate assistant at Indiana, and the older coach became his mentor.

"They've been great friends," Snook says. "How could these two people who are so different in their approach to the same game be in each other's corner the whole time?"