In September of 2007, I was given an opportunity to go on a three week coaches study tour to North Carolina, Spain and France.  The tour comprised of coaches from across Australia who were involved in elite level basketball coaching. 

The purpose of the tour was to identify developing trends in coaching from three of the top ranked basketball countries in the World at that time. Prior to the tour I had purchased a book called, “Leading from the Heart” by Mike Krzyzewski.  Krzyzewski or “Coach K”, as he is more commonly known, has been the Head Coach of Duke University since 1980.

Our contingent of coaches were lucky enough to spend a whole week observing trainings and coaching philosophies of The Duke Men's Basketball Program located in Durham, North Carolina. Following one of the sessions, Coach K put forward a scenario to our coaching group. Here’s how it went.

  • You are the leader of ten team members
  • As the team leader/ manager, you have assigned them with individual homework/training for one month and training that will benefit the team
  • Upon return, seven out of the ten had completed the homework/training
  • There were no excuses or reasons provided to not do the training/homework, There had also been no sickness or leave advised by the ten.
  • QUESTION: As a leader who do you work with and why? The seven or the three?

So the question was put forward to our group. As a leader who do you work with and why? The seven or the three? We all provided varied answers on who we would accommodate or in effect, remove from our teams.  

Coach K then provided his answer and it was to work and continue to develop the seven as they had done their homework. To allocate time with the three that never did the required training in an attempt to “catch up” would stifle the development of the seven that had put in the work.  In his words “ The train is moving so you better jump on board”. The train, in this case, his team, was a work in progress, and with the season fast approaching time was a critical factor. 

Following this tour, I was appointed as the Director of Coaching for Basketball in the Northern Territory. I had over 300 pages of notes from the three week tour but narrowed down the lessons, trends and learnings to suit our teams and individuals.  I didn’t realize the term at the time but this was an example of adaptational or situational leadership. I was fortunate to be mentored by another coach on the tour, Peter Lonergan,  whom I trusted and had the experience and knowledge to guide me in my role. 

Whilst delivering the Introduction to Indigenous Leadership Workshops I have implemented this scenario, with a slight twist to align with the Indigenous workforce and two points often stands out with our mob around the country with it. Participants have expressed the need for empathy in our leadership roles, but we must make the hard decisions also. 

Are you better than you were yesterday?

I’ll finish with a quote from my old coach. He would ask us each day at practice, are you better than you were yesterday? If we replied the same, that meant you were not improving, but in fact going backwards. He said you get better or worse, and there was no in between (staying the same).

There are many linkages between coaching, mentoring and leadership. There are also subtle differences. 

The observations and scenarios from this coaches study tour have served me well in leadership lessons not only on the basketball court but in the workplace and in business too. 

My own leadership philosophies are aligned with many college and professional basketball coaches but they also reflect our inspirational leaders of Aboriginal Australia who have blazed paths for many to lead in their families, communities and across the nation. 

On the final day of the tour I was fortunate to have my recently purchased book signed by Coach K. The book is aptly titled “Leading with the Heart”.


Timmy Duggan,  April 2020