USA Basketball, Department of Defense Host Successful Leadership Seminar
Las Vegas — Sitting before bleachers full of Air Force servicemen and women flanked by a pair of fighter jets, the first thing USA Men’s National Team coach Mike Krzyzewski did was fess up.
“We came here to apologize for stealing from you,” he joked.
When he and USA Basketball chairman and National Team managing director Jerry Colangelo started 10 years ago and were looking for a culture to emulate, Krzyzewski explained, they could think of none better than the United States armed forces. It’s proven to be a good decision.
On Thursday afternoon, Krzyzewski and Colangelo joined Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey on stage at Nellis Air Force Base for a Leadership Seminar as part of USA Basketball’s Hoops For Troops and the Department of Defense’s Commitment to Service initiatives. In a panel moderated by ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, the trio spent more than an hour sharing lessons, insights and taking questions on what has made them successful leaders.
Colangelo looked at the men assembled together, who have each risen to the top of their professions from disparate upbringings and circumstances, and determined that a big part of it was taking advantage of the opportunities uniquely available in the United States.
“In this country, it doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, what your beginnings are,” Colangelo said. “The sky’s the limit.”
Krzyzewski, who has won five national championships at Duke, got his start in college basketball as an enlisted man at West Point Academy. The lessons learned from that time have lingered throughout his career, and one of them is how to go beyond motivation.
“Even the most motivated person can go to another level of devotion by being inspired,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s what inspiration does. It takes you to a higher level, and you don’t go there alone. You go there with your sisters and brothers.”
Dempsey has served the United States military for more than 40 years, a tenure that officially ends on Sept. 30. He can feel the countdown ticking away as Thursday was his last scheduled visit with troops.
The end has made Dempsey reflect more on his career and appreciate some of the little things such as putting on the uniform. It’s a simple but important process, one that Dempsey told the crowd — and Krzyzewski also told his players — to take time to reflect on.
Dempsey said he had that appreciation early in his career, lost it a bit in the middle and has regained it down the stretch. Being a leader requires expertise, humility and courage, Dempsey explained, but there’s something extra that small things like the uniform can bring out of people who strive to lead no matter their current position.
"You all are incredibly competent at what you do. The best of you also feel it,” Dempsey said. “I hope if you don’t remember anything else from today you remember that, the importance of not only being exceptional at what you do but feeling how important it is and how proud you should be to do it.”
That sense of “feel” is something Dempsey described in his talk earlier in the day in a small meeting room with members of the USA Men’s National Team. First Krzyzewski played the team’s fight song — a highlight video intertwined with Marvin Gaye’s celebrated 1983 performance of the national anthem — and then Dempsey emphasized the meaning of placing your hand over your heart during its playing.
It’s not just about saluting the flag, he said, but it honors the ideals and foundations the country was built on. It’s a small gesture, yet when seen by servicemen and women across the world it has the power to unite everyone in a common cause.
Speaking later at Nellis, Dempsey told the group that he could tell the players really internalized his message. Usually, even if a person as adept at leading a group is confident they were heard in a meaningful way, there’s no guarantee their words had the desired effect.
In this case, there was proof. When the anthem played before Thursday night’s exhibition game, every single player placed his right hand over his heart.