Profiles of ethical leadership in sports coaching: Gregg Popovich

This is the fifth and final post in a month-long series profiling acclaimed sports coaches for their ethical leadership abilities. John Wooden, famed UCLA basketball coach, and his Pyramid of Success were the subject of the first post. The second post was about Johan Cruyff, world-famous Dutch footballer and international club manager, and the ethical leadership lessons of his 14 Rules. The third profile discussed Jim Valvano and his views about leadership and success as expressed in lines from his famous 1993 ESPY Awards speech. Last week’s post focused on Vince Lombardi, the NFL Hall of Fame coach, and values for ethical leaders from his famous motivational speeches.

Finally, today’s post will be about Gregg Popovich, an NBA coach who heads up the San Antonio Spurs and is well-known for his progressive and pro-active values, which often manifest in very public and political statements.

Before becoming an NBA coach, Gregg Popovich attended the United States Air Force Academy where he played basketball and majored in Soviet Studies. He served in the Air Force for five years before returning to the Academy to coach basketball there, followed by a stint as head coach at Division III Pomona-Pitzer and then assistant coach jobs in the NBA for the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, before returning to take a general manager job with the Spurs in 1994.

Popovich is widely considered one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history. He has been the coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996, making him the longest tenured active coach in not only the NBA but in all US major sports leagues. The competitive successes of the San Antonio Spurs under his stewardship are many – 20 consecutive winning seasons, five NBA championships, and more than 1,000 games won.

However, Popovich’s legacy as a winning basketball coach may be matched by his legacy as an outspoken and consistent leader on social justice issues – both in society as a whole and on the direct scale among his players. Popovich consistently uses his very visible platform to speak about inclusion, engagement, and accountability.

  • This 2007 profile of Popovich from Canada’s National Post hints at the values Popovich brings to his overall coaching vision. The profile notes that Popovich’s media profile was, at that time, lower than some other great coaches because he was not interested in self-promotion, nor did he have a singular “vision” for the team that was well-suited for branding and publicity purposes. Instead, he focused on building “strong, complicated” relationships with his players and emphasizing worldly knowledge and overall excellence alongside basketball fundamentals. This profile is especially interesting for the quote at its end, which at that time was posted in the hallway by the Spurs locker room, translated into the various languages the players on the team spoke: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-andfirst blow it will split in two and I know it was not that blow that did it but all that had gone before.” This view of success can only be espoused by a leader who sees the values and efforts of the organization as inseparable from those of the individual. This is a powerful and indeed empowering perspective on management as an activity and skill which serves the collective of the organization as well as each individual within it:  Popovich is a man of mystery
  • This 2013 round-up on Popovich centers on his interesting and complex personality and background, intended to fascinate basketball and sports fans. In most cases, these traits and experiences translate directly to his ethical leadership qualities as well, and the root is in Popovich’s personalized and compassionate approach to coaching individuals rather than just constructing offenses, defences, and plays in a vacuum. When he was general manager of the Spurs and the head coach wasn’t getting the job done, Popovich stepped up and put himself on the line, eventually hiring himself as head coach. He took tough decisions and made himself responsible for them, a behavior that embodies ethical leadership: An Ode to Gregg Popovich, the Most Interesting Man in the NBA
  • In 2014, Fortune included Popovich in its “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” feature. In this view, Popovich, portrayed as curmudgeonly and stoic, distinguishes his leadership by enabling his whole team, from the bench players to the superstars, to excel and achieve. His no-nonsense style focuses on character ethic, not personality ethic, which is the central value for promoting and sustaining individual integrity to then scale across the organization. Popovich’s leadership is special in this view because it is so relationship-focused, giving his players incentive to seek individual inner success, not just to please a coach or beat an opponent in a one-off, unsustainable fashion: Another victory for ‘Pop.’ Another show of leadership
  • Business Insider ran a 2016 piece on Popovich which again centered on his relationship-focused, individual-valuing coaching philosophy. His perspectives on rebounding from failure, organizational governance, and player development all fit within the broad strokes of ethical leadership. In particular, Popovich emphasizes that motivating players and resolving conflict is best accomplished through honesty and personal accountability. These is fundamental perspective for encouraging organizational and individual (employee, player, or otherwise) integrity. Again, character ethic is the most important, and this enables open communication and feed-forward development and problem-solving:  Gregg Popovich has a brilliant philosophy on handling players, and it exemplifies the Spurs’ unprecedented run of success
  • From 2017, this ESPN piece focuses on Popovich’s political engagement and public opposition to what he sees as immoral political behavior. However, the rationale for why Popovich feels so strongly about this and indeed why he feels that he has an ethical imperative to speak out loudly about it is very illustrative of his leadership views. The article shares an anecdote about a time that Popovich began a high-stakes film session by sharing his knowledge on a historical topic of personal importance to one of his players. Popovich creates an environment of inclusion on his team by making what is different between them, important and meaningful to all of them, by translating these lessons into leadership messages for all. This empathetic approach to leadership is an ultimate expression of integrity and engagement, two imperative ethical qualities in management. For the Spurs, recruiting based on diversity and then using that diversity as motivation leads to both market competition as well as organizational cohesion:  Why President Trump ignites Gregg Popovich

Hopefully this series of posts about sports coaches as ethical leaders has been entertaining and informative, lending a new perspective to management values in a different venue than the traditional corporate compliance environment. The concepts of inner success, character ethic, personal accountability, and purpose-driven life and work are all commonly endorsed by these ethical leaders as they guide their teams, which are major organizations in and of themselves, to competitive achievements with meaningful, sustainable motivations behind them.

Leave a Reply