Build & Motivate

Build & Motivate

Duke Basketball’s Coach K Uses a Powerful Communication Tactic to Build and Motivate Winning Teams


Great teams start with great leaders who have mastered the art of public speaking.


When the Duke Blue Devils take the court as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, viewers will be glued to college basketball’s most electrifying player, Zion Williamson.

The other four players, however, aren’t there as a supporting cast. They’re also future superstars. Together as a team, they feel unstoppable–and that’s by design.

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s numbers are staggering: more than 1,027 wins in his 38 seasons at Duke and the winner of five national championships. As a long-time student of Coach K’s leadership philosophy, I’ve identified one of the communication tactics that he uses to educate, motivate, and inspire his teams.

Best of all, it’s a tactic any leader can learn to be more persuasive: Coach K is a master of using vivid analogies to hammer home his message.

Analogies compare abstract ideas to something concrete. They work to motivate any teams–especially small-business groups–because they act as mental shortcuts. They can replace binders full of content and instead give team players an instant visual of what you want them to accomplish.

Here are some of Coach K’s go-to analogies and metaphors:

The fist

Teamwork is the foundation of Coach K’s success. The topic is something he’s studied closely, beginning with his education at West Point. It’s no coincidence that he delivers one of his most famous strategies in the form of an analogy.

“I look at the members of our team like the five fingers of a hand. Individually, the fingers aren’t as powerful as all of them coming together into a fist.” Kryzyzewski writes in his book, Leading with the Heart (a metaphor for leadership). The fact that a basketball team has five players on the court makes the analogy even more perfect.

Coach K extends the analogy further: “There are five fundamental qualities that make every team great: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring, and pride. I like to think of each as a separate finger on the fist. Any one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable.”

The fist is a powerful analogy for small-business owners who can’t afford a small group of individuals to act on their own selfish interests at the expense of the team.

The hub

For a team to have lasting success, bonds have to be formed between each member of the team, with the leader at the center, says Coach K. In his book, he writes:

Visualize a wagon wheel as a complete team. A leader might be the hub of the wheel at the center. Now suppose the spokes are the connecting relationships the leader is building with people on the rim of the wheel. If the hub is removed, then the entire wheel collapses.

But when all members of the team have each other’s backs and understand all the aspects of every other job on team, they can thrive even when the leader is absent. In a small business, the team leader isn’t always in front of the group. Many employees might work on contract or live outside of the area. This analogy helps the group to see how their work is connected.

The family

Coach K credits his strong family for making him better and stronger. He says leaders should run teams like a family: “From the beginning, we tell our players that they are not only members of a basketball team, they are joining a basketball family. In a family, you are never alone…if there’s a setback, someone comes to your rescue.”

Like the fist analogy, families make individuals part of something bigger. People join a business to earn a living, of course, but they also seek purpose and connection. If your star players don’t feel like they’re part of a family, it’s easier for them to leave.

The bus

As a youngster, Krzyzewski​ began to act out before entering high school. He remembers a conversation his mother had with him, a lesson in the form of an analogy that he uses with his players. In his 2016 Duke commencement speech, Coach K recalled the analogy his mom gave him:

Tomorrow, I want to make sure you get on the right bus. You’re going to meet new people and get on a different journey. Make sure the bus you drive is the right one. Make sure you only let good people on it. And when you get on somebody else’s bus, make sure it’s with someone who’s good.

Coach K says if you have high standards, success will follow. This holds true for small-business owners who must surround themselves with people who are like-minded in their pursuit of excellence.

The first finger in the Coach K’s “fist” stands for effective communication. Great teams start with great leaders who understand the power of analogy to bring them together.