5 Things Steve Kerr Taught me about Leadership

Almost all educators come into the profession with dreams of changing the world.  That we will make an impact so indelible in the hearts and minds of our students that they will have no choice but to go out and be advocates for that which they are passionate about.  We fantasize about the perfect lesson that flips the switch in the minds of our students to become the next generation of scientists, politicians, authors, or doctors.  That drive, to be the change in the hearts of children, doesn’t change when we move from the classroom to administration.  Although, some of our classroom colleagues may dispute that.  Over the next few months, it is my desire to share some thoughts on the struggles of making that transition.  I’ll use stories from friends, family, my digital learning community, and pop culture to illustrate examples of what we face as instructional leaders.  I hope that through these you, whoever “you” are, will have a better idea of what it's like leading a school. 

Because we all have the same expectation to come into a new endeavor and be an expert at it immediately, the names, places, and dates will be changed from the stories I share to protect the egos and the children who may be part of each one.

by Zac Leonard @MrLeonard8

Up until the past 5 years Steve Kerr’s name would really only be remembered by hard-core NBA fans, specifically fans of the 1990s Chicago Bulls.   The man who once existed in the shadow of the greatest of all time, now finds himself poised to be considered the best coach of our current generation.

The road Steve Kerr traveled to become the head coach of the 2 time NBA champion Golden State Warriors is a curious one, and as a young leader I’ve found 5 ways that Steve Kerr’s leadership on the hardwood can translate to the school-house.

1. Do your job to the best of your abilities

 

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Steve Kerr understands what it takes to be a champion.  As part of two different teams he won 5 NBA Titles, he was never a league MVP, or even a Finals MVP, he never received a max contract, and was traded 4 times and released twice.

When the leadership of a team decided that they could get better players in exchange for him and some other pieces they jumped at it.  Kerr understands that being part of a team is not about his individual success but in the achievement of the mission, and to maximize the team’s chances of success each player has to do their job, and do it to the best of their abilities.

As school leaders we read this and think, “Oh yeah! We need our teachers and staff to do their job everyday to the best of their abilities!”

The problem with this way of thinking is we are focusing on the wrong players, as leaders we can never expect our staffs to put forth their best effort if we are not modeling that on a consistent basis.  Are we going to be perfect, absolutely not, but when we fail we have to be public in our failures to model to our stakeholders how to fail, and how to best recover from that failure.

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As school officials we all have a role to play to accomplish our mission of preparing our students for the future they will inherit.  Our job as leaders is to ensure that each of our players knows their role, and is equipped to do it to the best of their abilities.

2. Learn from your mentors, but don’t be intimidated by them

Kerr spent his playing career working for the best minds basketball could offer.  From Phil Jackson and his Triangle Offense, to Greg Popovich and his Do your Job mentality.  These coaches were and still are considered masters and innovators of their craft, that’s why on May 14th, 2014 the sports world was shocked!  Steve Kerr turned down one of his mentors, Phil Jackson, to coach the New York Knicks.  This was

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there must have been more to the story…over the next few weeks sports broadcasters would pontificate on the lack of trust, or hidden agenda that caused Steve Kerr to reject his former coach to take a job with the Golden State Warriors.

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Kerr went on record saying that the decision to go with the Warriors over Jackson and the Knicks came down to his family.  He didn’t want to uproot them across the country, or keep them in California and have him across the country for months at a time.

As a school leader we all have our mentors, and often times we can feel the angst of being forced to choose between our loyalty towards the mentor or what’s best for us.  Kerr had the strength of character to make the decision to do what’s best for his family, instead of what his mentor wanted.  For those of you who are searching for “leadership opportunities” they are amazing, and you should jump at as many as you are able to do, however remember, don’t trade your sanity, your family, and your future by over extending yourself with these “resume builders”.  If your mentor truly sees you as the future of your school or district they will understand.

Know yourself, and know your limits, set non-negotiable timelines on when you will leave work, and how much work you will do from home and stick to those!

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3. Let the players plan

One of the most amazing things I’ve seen Steve Kerr do as a basketball coach came just a few weeks ago.  The Warriors are considered the best of the best in the NBA, but they were going through a slump, a losing streak.  Most coaches would stick to the plan, keep focused on the objective, stay the course.  Kerr is different he took the slump as an opportunity to hear the voice of his players and gave the clipboard over to them.  In a move that surprised many outside of the Warriors organization, but shouldn’t have been a surprise, Steve Kerr turned over his coaching responsibilities to his team.

Think about what this would look like in a school…Teachers writing lesson plans with their students, administrators developing PD plans with their staff.  In a real way, Kerr broke the barrier between coach and player, something that some schools could learn a thing or two from.

Have you ever worked with a teacher who is constantly complaining about the leadership, “They never listen to us”, “How is this supposed to help me in my classroom”, “I swear they must have their heads up their…”?  However, those same teachers are the ones who rule their classrooms as tyrants, who have desks in rows, and students who are afraid to sneeze let alone ask a question.

As leaders we have to model what we expect, if our staff is complaining, cantankerous, or catatonic that’s a reflection on us.  Maybe its time to turn over the whistle and let the staff decide the best way to learn and improve.  Maybe test score data shouldn’t be the driving force for how we build our PD calendar for the year.  Perhaps we ask, and most importantly listen, to our teachers to see what they need.

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4. Depend on your team

October 2015, Kerr was riding high the wave of being the defending NBA champion, and really having only 1 team that could compete with them.  His back was not willing to cooperate.  Unlike almost any professional coach in any major American sport, Kerr took a leave of absence.  As a sports fan I cannot think of anything other than cancer that would take a coach away from the game, Belichick, no way, Joe Madden, nope… Part of what makes it difficult to become and remain a professional athlete or head coach is having a borderline ego disorder.  If no one else on the planet believed that you could be what you wanted to be, the professional athlete has the presence of mind to remain resolute in their convictions that they are the best and will achieve their goals.  Now take that mentality, the same personality that argued with Michael Jordan, and Tim Duncan over team dynamics make him a head coach and would you expect him to be willing to share the throne… He did

Kerr took his protégé Luke Walton and gave him the keys to the castle. Walton went on to lead the Warriors to the longest winning streak in the history of the NBA.

We can’t do it all, and honestly none of us want to.  There will be times in your career where you want so badly to handle everything because then you’ll have the control to ensure it gets done to your expectations.  The problem with that way of thinking is it's based on the idea of self-preservation, but in reality it’s the fastest track to burn out.  We all have our Luke Waltons.  As leaders we have to give opportunities to grow to those who are seeking it, and our value as a leader is dependent on how we develop the next generation of leaders.

 

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5. Use your position to speak for those who have no voice

February 14th, 2018, the Warriors are preparing for their game against the Portland Trailblazers, Kerr is before the media answering questions as he does before and after every game.  A reporter asks him how the fatigue from the number of mass shootings in the country has taken its toll on him.  In this moment Kerr would have been 100% within his rights, and probably his boss’s advice, to say, “We are focused on the Trail Blazers”.  Instead he took all 7 of his championship titles, his relationships with hall of fame coaches, his NBA Coach of the Year award, and every other ounce of respect he has earned up to this point in his life and he stood up for what he believes is right.

"Nothing has been done. It doesn't seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day in schools. It doesn't matter that people are being shot at a concert, in a movie theater. It's not enough, apparently, to move our leadership, our government, people that are running this country, to actually do anything. That's demoralizing.

"But we can do something about it. We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people's lives and not just bow down to the NRA because they've financed their campaign for them. So, hopefully we'll find enough people, first of all, to vote good people in, but hopefully we can find enough people with courage to help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues. Not building some stupid wall for billions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety, but actually protecting us from what truly is dangerous, which is maniacs with semi-automatic weapons just slaughtering our children. It's disgusting."

Final Thoughts

I know that politics are what drive elections, and what determine whether or not districts continue to run as they are running.  I know that kids struggle to grasp the full extent of their words and actions, and I know that ultimately this mindset will be my downfall as a leader…but I pray it can never be said that I stayed quiet when those who I was charged with educating, leading, and protecting needed someone with a platform to be their voice.

I’m not a Warriors fan, and honestly other than my 11 and 8 year old's YMCA games once a week, I never really watch it. However, I can see good leadership when it shows itself. As a pre-teen watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls win multiple championships, the mantra was "Be like Mike!", the last person on the court I wanted to be was Steve Kerr; boy how times have changed... "Be like Kerr!"