Win or Lose, Coach K Is Surely a Winner!

The NCAA tournament is a high-stress crucible. And when emotions run high, be it in the midst of a sporting event or a daily event in our lives and in the workplace, we always find much to learn within that circular, heat-resistant earthen pot. In fact, an emotion-laden contest is always a trial by fire.

As the NCAA is a single-elimination tournament, only one team will be undefeated. So we have the opportunity to hear 67 coaches explain “what happened.” In my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press 2008), I observe that “… [I]n trying times you will be judged as much by the grace and dignity you exhibit as by the outcome you produce. As a Japanese proverb so beautifully instructs, ‘The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.’ In this age of instant communication, I’d like to amend this proverb: The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by a single comment!”

Even with more wins than any coach in college basketball history, this multiple winner of the national championship, Duke University’s Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski, has had to comment on painful losses. In what most view as a major upset, Lehigh beat Duke this year in the second round of the tournament. A genuinely humble man, Coach K has a quiet certitude which lays witness to how he accepts victory–as well as to the manner in which he acknowledges a loss: “I’ve been at it for 37 years and [coaching basketball] takes you to some incredible highs and it also takes you to some incredible lows. And tonight is one of those lows.”

Think about other coaches you’ve heard excuse away a loss. Coach K addressed the Duke loss with an elegant humility, but we have all witnessed coaches, leaders, or co-workers who have a much different expression of their misfortune, lack of success, and shortcomings: “Aw, the other team was lucky,” “There is no way I could have known that our competitor would make such a bold bid,” “I assumed my subordinate had contacted our client,” and on and on and on, with such gamey plays as blaming, shaming, deflecting/redirecting, or not-my-job. And many more lame defenses.

Excusers cannot accept the judgment a loss reveals. And that shows they don’t acknowledge the reality of the moment, nor do they have the wisdom to understand how life works, plain and simple. Moreover, they are missing a key insight, that of the perspective their players, family, or co-workers pick up from their weak excuses. When a leader can’t forthrightly accept a loss that is fairly earned, the culture of the team, family, or organization takes on a sense of entitlement, an expectation of success not based on hard work, but at best on past glories.

Who could achieve long-term success in any life’s calling with the flawed belief that a win is the natural consequence of one’s innate superiority, forget practice and skill, while a loss is one of the Lord’s nasty tricks–a miracle turned on its ear?

Coach K was unambiguous in his appraisal of the Lehigh team; they had a “bold” game plan, he said, and great perseverance. He was generous in his praise! I just read a fascinating article by the novelist Marilynne Robinson describing why generosity is an act of courage and freedom. Ms. Robertson eloquently postulates that when we are generous to others, without regard to our personal circumstance, we are courageous in our ways.

In this age, when individuals shed personal responsibility for their actions like a snake sheds its worn-out skin, admitting that your opposition may have deservedly bested your team may not be an extinct admission, but closes in on a rare occurrence. Ms. Robinson adds that “…[G]enerosity is also an act of freedom, a casting off of the constraints of prudence and self-interest.” Certainly Coach K’s comments on Duke’s season-ending loss shows us a man who possesses little debilitating self-interest. Moreover, that so many of his star players have left the program early for pro careers is a further testimony to his generosity and lack of self-interest, cornerstones of ethical behavior.

When I was president of an S&P 500 international service provider, I often wrote to our employees worldwide reminding them that business is in many ways the world’s greatest indoor sport. I reminded them that while we are number one, we should never forget that we got there by waking up every morning knowing that this is a day unlike any other.

On this new day we have not yet fashioned a win. We may have lots of prior victories that fill our reservoir of self-confidence, which is important, but on this day the “players” at other companies also want to win. In fact, they, too, get up each day with the intent to do just that! We stay warned, then: if we don’t win, we won’t blame it on the refs or some crazy, unexpected play or a change in the marketplace. We will admit our shortcomings and suit up tomorrow with a more focused intent to win that day! And mean it, no excuses.

My friends, as Coach K exemplifies, character may be forged in difficult times, but it is always exhibited!

About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at
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