Management Styles: Bob Knight vs. Coach K

19 August 2006 at 10:58 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Two of the most successful US college basketball coaches, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K), are as well known for their management styles as for their on-court success. Knight (the legendary Indiana University coach now at Texas Tech.) is the in-your-face, marine-style drill sergeant who tears his players down only to build them back up. Duke’s Krzyzewski (a former Knight assistant) prefers to nurture and encourage his players, trying to establish a caring, family-style atmosphere.

Upon pondering these facts, what’s a good management scholar to do? Why, make a leadership case out of them, of course.

This piece in HBS’s Working Knowledge for Business Leaders profiles Scott Snook, who has created an HBS leadership course based on the contrasting styles of Knight and Krzyzewski. (Via Businesspundit.)

According to Snook, the two styles ultimately rest on different behavioral foundations:

If you believe people are fundamentally good — good meaning that they’re trying to do their best, they’re self-motivated, they want to perform — then your fundamental leadership style will be one way. It will be empowering them, getting obstacles out of the way, and setting high goals while maintaining standards.

If you believe people are fundamentally bad — if you believe people are constantly looking to get over and get by and won’t do anything unless they’re watched — then you’ll tend to lead with a very transactional management style that’s built primarily around rewards and punishments. Tight supervision, a controlling type of leadership style characterized by a great deal of social distance between leaders and led.

Hmmm, the latter sounds like the Ghoshal-Pfeffer caricature of economic analysis, but never mind. Anyway, I leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what this says for the “leadership” curriculum at the top business schools.

(Side note from the Larry Summers file: Anson Dorrance, who coaches both the men’s and women’s soccer teams at North Carolina, raised hackles a few years ago by suggesting that men and women respond differently to different coaching styles. Dorrance is known for relating to his male players like Bob Knight and his female players like Coach K. Dorrance, unlike Summers, survived the flap, perhaps because he’s the most successful women’s soccer coach in NCAA history.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bob Sutton  |  20 August 2006 at 1:30 pm

    Bob Knight has a well-documented history of physical and psychological abuse, including an incident where he looks like he is choking player that was caught on videotape. Who cares if he wins: That narrow definition as the sole measure of effectiveness is one of the main things wrong with our culture and often our theories. He should have been fired, but his school was a victim of our cultural myth: If you are are really big winner, you can get away with being a really big asshole.

    It is clear that being an abusive jerk is not required for winning: Phil Jackson is exhibit 1, and in business there is A.G. Lafley of P&G and many other fine human beings who lead effective companies.

    Sure, I can make arguments — I have made arguments — about reasons that being an demeaning bully can spark performance in the narrow sense. But glorifying these jerks demeans us as human-beings, and success is possible under a compassionate leader, so why don’t we — as a society — simply decree that such people aren’t allowed to hold leadership positions?

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  21 August 2006 at 9:20 am

    Steve Sailer passes along this story about former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner (from the NYT obit):

    One former American ambassador to Paraguay, Robert E. White, remembered General Stroessner as darkly brilliant at profiting from others’ mistakes. Once, Mr. White recalled, the Paraguayan ambassador to Argentina had gambled away the embassy’s entire budget. The ambassador was immediately summoned to Asunción and was handed a confession to sign. General Stroessner then promoted him to foreign minister. “He could never have an independent thought or deed after that,” Mr. White explained.

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