It was 2017, and I was on the road as a first-time author and person-nobody-knew promoting Good Authority. I stepped out of my hotel room in San Antonio to relax by the pool before one of my first ever speaking events. As I fumbled through my pockets, making sure I had the key card not to lock myself out, I glanced down the corridor and saw a figure I recognized, though I wasn’t sure how. “Is that Steve Kerr?” I thought to myself. For the non-basketball fans among us, Steve Kerr was one of Michael Jordan’s sidekicks during their championship runs in the 90s, and he had a particular knack for stabbing Knicks fans like me in the heart with clutch jump shots.
Moments later, I realized it was indeed the man himself. A great player and a great coach, I’d come to admire Coach Kerr in recent years for fearlessly speaking his raw truth on a wide range of social and political issues, saying the kind of things that professional sports coaches usually stick their head in the sand or recite the corporate line about. I wanted to let him know that it mattered to me.
“Hey Steve, I’m sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say that I respect how you speak out on the issues that matter,” I said. “You killed my Knicks too many times, but I’ll let that slide.”
“Oh, nice of you to say,” he replied. “What brings you to San Antonio?”
“I just published my first book, and I’m doing a little speaking tour to promote it.” This conversation was already going a sentence beyond how long I thought it would last.
“Congrats, that’s great. What’s it about?”
“It’s about people leadership and a different approach for how leaders and managers can develop people at work.”
“Awesome. I’ll tell you, so much of what I learned about leading was from Pop [Greg Popovich, the legendary coach to whom Kerr was an assistant before becoming a head coach himself]. It’s such a rich topic.”
I didn’t want to hold him up. But, I realized that I had a stack of copies of Good Authority on the desk right behind my hotel room door.
“This is awkward, but could I give you a copy?”
“Sure, I’d love to read it. Oh, you should come to check out one of our practices sometimes. I think you’d really enjoy it.”
We parted ways, and I went to the hotel pool, where the only other person there was a very tall young man named Klay Thompson, trying to relax before that night’s game. I left him alone.
That summer, the stars aligned for me to take Steve up on his offer to sit in on a Warriors practice session. As a competent but far-from-great high school athlete and a lifetime basketball geek, a lot of what I saw looked familiar. All kinds of drills happening across three courts, players who were already among the best in the world working tirelessly on the tiny little details of their craft — the footwork, the balance, the court awareness, the communication.
And, as impressive as all these athletes were, it was hard to take your eyes off of Kevin Durant. To see him up close was to witness a seven-foot-tall man with the agility of someone a foot shorter, seemingly quicker, faster, and more slippery than humanly possible. I decided he was quite possibly an alien. As the on-court work was wrapping up, the coaches called the team to the film room. That’s where the Warriors — Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in particular — reminded me of one of the most important leadership lessons.
On the side of the gym, a screen was set up in front of a few rows of folding chairs. It was time to go through the video from their last game. It was still pre-season, so the stakes were relatively low. Nevertheless, Coach Kerr proceeded to go through specific plays to highlight notable things that happened, both good and bad. Rewind, watch it again. Rewind, look closer. If you’re a sports fan at all, you know that all teams do this, what’s called Film Day in football – when teams spend hours and hours reviewing footage of a previous game to do one thing: to slow down the critical moments of the game ... and learn.
Coach Kerr was going through a particular sequence where Steph Curry had made a disgruntled gesture towards the referee on what he felt was a missed call, and, in his frustration, he let the guy he was defending slip downcourt for a fraction of a second. Steph caught up to him; he hadn’t cost the team a bucket, but that wasn’t the point. Coach Kerr was micro-coaching one of the best basketball players of all time on how he could be even better.
Then I noticed it.
Both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant weren’t just in the film room. They were sitting in the front row. The two people you could argue needed to watch the film the least were right there, listening to their coach with rapt attention, hungry to learn. They weren’t arguing with the coaches’ points. They weren’t getting defensive. They were engaged. They were asking questions. And, of course, they were modeling for the rest of the team what it looks like to be a leader: Not sitting back and thinking you've got it sorted, but showing up with a beginner’s mindset instead of arrogance. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant reminded me that every one of us has a lot to learn about our craft, no matter how long we’ve been playing and no matter how much success we've had so far.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve come across CEOs and executives who want Refound to help their organization improve communication and accountability but don’t want to participate in coaching or training themselves. It’s ironic because the first question managers ask when we work with them is, “Are our executives doing this too? Because they badly need to learn this stuff too.”
Practice wrapped up, and I waved goodbye to Coach Kerr and headed off. In all my years of playing and watching sports, it was the first opportunity I’d had to see what it looks like in between games. And in this case, I witnessed not just what good looks like, but what greatness looks like.
I was reminiscing on that experience today, as the Warriors get set for Game 1 of their sixth NBA finals appearance in the last eight years, thinking about the vigilance, the determination, the resilience, and the humility that it takes to be at the top of your game for such a long time.
Is the Warrior’s team culture the only reason behind their dynasty? Of course not. They also have great players, great coaches, loyal fans, and committed owners. But there have been plenty of teams who had all those things and haven’t had 5% of the success the Warriors have had.
The moral here: No matter how experienced you are, no matter how much you think you know about being a good leader, the next time there’s a moment for your team to learn about itself, sit in the front row.
If that's where Steph and Kevin sit, that's where you and I should be too.