To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one you become selfless.” – Mike Krzyzewski, Coach, Men’s Olympic Basketball Team USA

I had the absolute pleasure of hearing the amazing Mike Krzyzewski speak at a Chicago conference about what it was like to get the best out of professional athletes. The CEO of one of my clients arranged for us to attend the keynote to kick off our strategic planning sessions.

Coach of Duke University’s basketball team for the last 40 years, and more recently of the Men’s Olympic Basketball Team USA, Mike shared his wisdom and insights as I feverishly took notes. One thing he said really hit home on a topic I’d never heard articulated so well.

He talked about coaching the men’s basketball team and how the conventional wisdom is to check your ego at the door.

He suggested that made no sense in the world. He essentially said, “I want you to bring your ego and bring it all, in all of its glory – because your ego is that thing that drives you to be great – to push harder, fight harder, train harder – and we want all of that.”

His challenge and job as a coach was then to take the individual mass of egos and align them into one common ego – into the thing that we call team.

“Create ownership,” he said, “by letting them come up with their own rules for how they work and live.”

The light bulbs and fireworks went off in my head! Of course! Since I heard Mike Krzyzewski speak, I’ve even caught myself a few times, trying to squish the ego rather than direct it. And I see leaders make the mistake of checking the ego of an amazing, high performing person. They clip their wings, and keep them from soaring by try to make them smaller.

By the way, by ‘ego’ I make a distinction between a constructive and a destructive ego: between someone who walks around telling everyone they are the best thing since sliced bread – versus someone who takes incredible pride in their work, is highly competitive, and has a strong desire to be the best – without diminishing others.

In my work with high performing executives on leadership teams, the most successful company has people who are incredibly proud and driven. Because I naturally love and appreciate that personality style I generally try to make it stronger – to pull out the best in them. That’s my job as a coach.

Creating a Common Ego

About 10 years ago a client, who owned a number of very successful restaurants, shared one of the secrets of his success.

“Kevin,” he said. “I have learned that if you can learn how to hire and work with divas, they are the most talented and high performing people in a retail environment. It takes a different skill set that most people have – and they end up firing them. But I love them! They are performers! They are dramatic and they bring my restaurants to life.”

Your challenge, as a leader, is to learn how to manage and appreciate the egos of the people on your team – to see how you can improve your skill set to bring them together – and direct them towards common goals, and the greater good of the organization.