Beyond the Build


Lesson from Coach K: Leadership and Words Are Inseparable

Over the years, I have learned that the just right word(s) at the right time can make a huge difference in people’s lives. At times this means motivating them to do their best, and at other times it’s helping them through a tough spell.

Several years ago, I learned that one of our longterm customers was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. When I would speak with him, there were times of clarity, and at other times things were very fuzzy.

I would periodically call him, just to check in. One morning, I learned that he had recently returned from the YMCA where he had been playing basketball. He shared that this had become an almost daily activity because after playing basketball, his brain seemed to work much better.

That made sense when I learned that about 50 years ago he had been the starting guard of the Duke University basketball team. I wondered if his brain got working better because of the exercise or because of fond memories of his youth?

That’s when I got the idea to write Coach K, infamous Duke’s coach, telling him about my friend and customer.

Was there something he could do? Beyond his legacy of national championships, Coach K is known for his ability to build esteem, confidence and leadership among his players. As he wrote in the  Wall Street Journal a month or so ago

“I believe that my work is as much about the words as it is about basketball…As a coach, my primary task is motivation.”

On this occasion, he did just that for a former player. WOW did he do something with words…He wrote my friend a wonderful letter of encouragement and sent him a playbook from a couple of years before. For whatever reason, the playbook really resonated. He read and re-read it, and played basketball daily for the rest of his life. As the disease progressed, the sport brought him more of those precious moments of clarity.

As a leader, what do you do to connect with your team and motivate them as individuals? As you see from Coach K, the effects can be powerful, even life-changing. 

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.