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Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr Just Did Something Very Strange–and Taught a Brilliant Leadership Lesson in the Process

How do you motivate a team that doesn’t have anything to prove? Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr just showed us.

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BY Justin Bariso - 13 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

As the leader of a team, what would you do if you felt that you were losing control? That your team members were no longer responding to your efforts?

That's the situation Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr found himself in recently. Despite having one of the most successful starts in coaching history (which includes two NBA championships in his first three years as a head coach) Kerr's Warriors have struggled of late.

How did Kerr respond? He stepped aside, and let the players coach themselves.

According to ESPN, the player takeover began on Monday morning, when Kerr allowed Warriors player Andre Iguodala to run the shootaround (practice). JaVale McGee, another player, ran the computer as the players broke down film.

Then, during the Warriors' game against the Phoenix Suns on Monday evening, Kerr handed even more authority to Iguodala, along with fellow players David West and Draymond Green. Each player took at least one turn coaching the team during timeouts, with Green (who sat out as a player with a sprained finger) running the team for much of the game.

"It's their team. I think that's one of the first things you have to consider as a coach," Kerr said. "They have to take ownership of it. As coaches our job is to nudge them in the right direction, guide them, but we don't control them. They determine their own fate. I don't feel like we've focused well the past month, and just it seemed like the right thing to do. I thought they communicated really well together and drew up some nice plays, and it was a good night for the guys."

A good night--that's one way to put it. The Warriors defeated the Suns by over 40 points.

Kerr's move was certainly unorthodox, at least in this version of the NBA. As ESPN's Chris Haynes pointed out, while NBA players may occasionally run the huddle for a small portion of a timeout, "to completely hand the reins over to players multiple times in a game [is] uncommon." (Diehard basketball fans will remember Bill Russell, who won two of his eleven titles while filling the role of player-coach for the Boston Celtics.)

But this move by Kerr is especially brilliant, and provides valuable takeaways for anyone leading a team.

1. Use your emotional intelligence.

The Warriors have been the NBA's best team for the past few years. But how do you continue to motivate team members who have nothing left to prove?

Kerr realized a change was necessary, that the team needed to evolve somehow to get his players engaged.

"It had to do with me reaching my team," Kerr said in the post-game interview. "I have not reached them for the last month. They're tired of my voice. I'm tired of my voice. It's been a long haul these last few years and I wasn't reaching them, and we just figured it was probably a good night to pull a trick out of the hat and do something different."

Takeaway: Pay attention to your team. Are they lacking motivation? If so, you have to find a way to reach them emotionally. One of the best ways to do that is to...

2. Empower your team.

Kerr was able to reach the members of his team because he knows their strengths and weaknesses, along with what makes them tick. For example, he's identified leadership qualities in Green, whom he used to coach for most of the game. He's also seen his players respond to Green taking command in the past, so he could be confident they'd play hard for him.

Takeaway: There are many ways to empower employees. You can give them the training and tools they need to do their best work. You can also provide the freedom and psychological safety they need to express dissenting opinions.

Not only will this motivate your people, it will build trust in your relationship.

3. Get your team to think.

By incorporating a cerebral approach, Kerr engaged his players' minds, helping them both to see the big picture and think through the execution of their strategy.

In my consulting work, one of the biggest problems I see in even successful organizations is that individuals stop thinking for themselves. They rely too much on their managers or on what's worked in the past, instead of using their smarts to find real solutions. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Takeaway: Encourage your team to take (calculated) risks. Not all of their ideas will work out, but you must learn to disagree and commit, to go all in with your team. That means supporting them unconditionally, no sabotage--direct or indirect.

By trusting your team's gut, you give them room to experiment and grow--and your people gain confidence.

Use your emotional intelligence. Empower your team. Get them to think.

Remember, people want to be led, not controlled. If you really want your people to succeed, give them the guidance they need; then, be sure to get out of the way.

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