Management Style: Coach K vs. Coach Knight

As a graduate of the University of Kentucky, I don't particularly care for either of these coaches. However, there is an interesting article from Harvard Business School this week that compares the management style of the two, and makes a very interesting point. The article discusses the positive reinforcement style of Krzyzewski with the discipline and intimidation style of Knight. Insiders that know much about either coach would probably say these are strawman portrayals, but it still raises a good question. Should you be loved, hated, or somewhere in between?

The article doesn't really provide an answer, but there is one snipped that struck me as very important.

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."

Your style says a lot about what you really think of your employees. I've worked with many managers that don't realize this. If you pay lip service to one thing but practice another, most people will see right through you. You can't empower employees with freedom and authority because it's the fad of the week, only to worry about whether or not they are really working or if they are goofing off.

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The lesson to take from this isn't about two management styles. It's about analyzing yourself and being consistent in the way you approach management. Mixed messages lead to poor execution, which leads to finger pointing and bad attitudes and then you end up scratching your head wondering why your words don't matter. Be sure they match your actions.

  • Having observed both coaches for years from afar, I certainly appreciate the difference between the two coaches. What is often missed about Knight is the method to his madness. This article misses it. Why does he use the tactics he does? He wants his players to be able to thrive in pressure situations. His harassment/verbal berating is merely a simulation of late game pressure which his player will undoubtedly endure. His style isn’t for everyone, but it is very similar to the way Earl Woods trained Tiger.

  • The people-are-basically-good stragegy works if, and only if, you hire and retain the right kind of people. There *are* people in the world who will take advantage in a positive climate, and if you want to have such a climate, you need to get rid of such people.

  • Jason

    I always cringe a bit when people talk about applying Machiavelli to the real world. Not that I think he was wrong, indeed, I’m pretty sure he’s right. The problem is that we lack the capacity to enforce fear.

    In Machiavelli’s time, that meant lopping of heads. In a bad economic environment, yes, you can behave like Machiavelli’s virtuous prince. But in a good economic environment, you lack the necessary tools to brutalize your employees and instill fear in them – they can just leave.

    Final note: for Machiavelli, it would ideal to be both loved and feared, but if you MUST choose between the two, take feared.

  • Jason B

    I think this is interesting but a bit over simplified to try and make a ‘cute’ story. Only at the very end does the article point out that Knight and Coach K are close friends and that Knight was coach and mentor to Coach K.
    Now I am an IU grad and I was able to take Coach Knight’s class when I was at Indiana so I have seen him up close and have spent time around him. I have tremendous respect for him and his abilities and the same goes for Coach K.
    This article misses the point that rather then being opposites “tough” vs. “positive” the two men are actually very much alike. Knight cares a great deal about “his guys” doing a ton of things for them the media rarely sees or writes about. I do think he does not express that affection as often or as easily as he does his anger (both real and manufactured) Perhaps that is somewhat generational? Coach K can also be very tough, read the book “A March into Madness” for a glimpse behind the Amex ads. As a fan of both coaches, I would probably pick Coach K over Coach Knight because either through temperment or from learning from Knight’s mistakes, or both, he has avoided the excesses of Coach Knight’s temper. I love Coach Knight but I think Coach K has learned to better balance the “tough, hard nose coach” with the ability to go BEYOND that. He can be very tough, but more so then Knight he can reign it in AND he can adjust his style. Both good men and great coaches. Coach K may not have the raw genius of Coach Knight but I believe he is more adaptable. The right kind of person/play can thrive under Knight but I suspect MORE types of players/people can thrive under Coach K.
    Matt is right, Knight is not so much about fear as about preperation. He wants the 4 years with him to be the hardest thing you ever do – so that games, work, life all seem easier, all obstacles can be overcome. But perhaps when you are a 19 year old kid you need a pat on the back a little more then just a kick in the rear.

  • I think Jason’s points are not only valid regarding Coach K and Coach Knight (whom I interviewed in a past life as a sports writer with a daily). I don’t think the “people are good” or “people are bad” best illustrates the make-up of humans. We are both good and bad and sometimes a hug, sometimes anger motivates, while neither used without the other motivates for very long.

  • spliff

    Being a Lexingtonian and lifelong Wildcat fan, I certainly understand your antipathy to both coaches. (I can honestly say the only sports team I truly hate is Duke b-ball and the only person I truly hate is Bobby Knight.)

    But I must say one of the finest motivational comments I’ve ever heard came from Knight. Something to the effect of: you can’t just want to win, you have to want to PREPARE to win. Loving the game is great but loving practice is where you acheive greatness. And surrounding yourself with the people who want to be great, not simply rich or famous or well-liked, will yield greatness. Surrounding yourself with people who need to be bullied will bring only an endless parade of sticks and carrots.