Steve Kerr on the Importance of Work-Life Balance
In this View From The Top podcast episode, the NBA coach shares how his leadership style and values on the court mimic what he practices at home.
“What I’ve found with our players, is that the guys who have the most balance in their lives, are the ones who know how to handle all this stuff the best,” said Steve Kerr, head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, in a View From The Top interview on campus. “Work-life balance is just crucial.”
Interviewed by Rustom Birdie, MBA ’22, Kerr compared leading on the court to leading at home. “I think I lead my team a little bit like I raised my children,” he said. “My wife and I did that together, and we always sort of gave them a lot of rope, but they kind of knew they were responsible for that freedom. I believe in the same kind of leadership with the team.”
Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund. During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.
Steve Kerr: You actually will come across stronger to the people you’re leading if you show that you don’t have all the answers. As long as they know you’re putting in the work, that you know what you’re talking about. Because what we’re doing is more art than science. It’s a basketball game.
Rustom Birdie: Welcome to View From The Top, the podcast. That was Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors. Steve visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From the Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview leaders from around the world.
Rustom Birdie: I’m Rustom Birdie, an MBA student of the class of 2022. This year I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve on campus in Palo Alto. Steve shared with us the importance of authenticity when leading teams, of ensuring work life balance and mindfulness in our daily lives, and why proximity matters when trying to address difficult topics impacting our community. (pause) You’re listening to View From The Top, the podcast.
Rustom Birdie: Hi, Steve.
Steve Kerr: Hi. [Laughs]
Rustom Birdie: How does feel to ―
Steve Kerr: We’ve been hanging out for like 20 minutes, but it’s like ―
Rustom Birdie: Still awkward, right? How does it feel to be back in front of everyone? You’re not on Zoom anymore.
Steve Kerr: Yeah. It feels nice. You know, we had a game last night in Portland, and it was the first time, really, that we felt a full house with fans. Last year, at the end of the season, we had some fans back in the building, but not a full house, and last night you could just feel the energy. Everybody was so excited just to have some semblance of normalcy, so.
Rustom Birdie: Totally.
Steve Kerr: This feels good, too. It’s good to be back with people.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Hopefully we [can] recreate that energy tonight during this talk. Before we dive into the interview, [I] wanted to share, if you do want to show us the bottom half of your face, you have two options. Stay hydrated, so lots of water ―
Steve Kerr: Okay.
Rustom Birdie: ― or option two, we’ve been told, is if this was a performance, you can actually remove your mask. If you want to shoot some three-pointers for us, let us know.
Steve Kerr: So I can actually remove this if I perform?
Rustom Birdie: Absolutely. If you shoot your career percentage tonight, then you can opt to remove that, yeah. Anyway, let’s dive in, in all seriousness.
Steve Kerr:& So the mask stays or goes? Which one? I don’t see a ball. I don’t see a hoop.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Do we have a basketball in the crowd over here somewhere?
Steve Kerr: I could juggle, maybe.
Rustom Birdie: Juggle, maybe? Any other performance would also do. Yeah.
Steve Kerr: I don’t think I really know how to do anything else.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. We don’t want you to put us to shame, to be honest. I think that’s the real reason we don’t have a basketball here. But thank you for being here at the GSB.
Steve Kerr: [Thank you].
Rustom Birdie: We’re super excited. We think we have a lot to learn from you, not just Steve Kerr the player, the general manager, the head coach, but also the podcast host, the social commentator. [We] want to dive in. Let’s perhaps start with leadership. How would you describe your style of leadership in your own words?
Steve Kerr: I think I lead my team a little bit like I raised my children. My wife and I did that together, and we always sort of gave them a lot of rope, but they kind of knew they were responsible for that freedom, and so I believe in the same kind of leadership with the team. You can tell by the way we play. You know, we’re pretty fast-paced. We’re risky. We shoot a lot of crazy shots, especially Steph and Klay, but I believe that the freedom that they have makes them play more instinctively and that, ultimately, when you’re coaching a basketball team, the players ― it’s their team, and so you have to give them the team, but give them the blueprint for how it’s all going to work.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: Once the culture is set and the idea is set about what we’re trying to accomplish, you kind of let them go, and then you just reign them in when you feel like you need to reign them in, so.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah.
Steve Kerr: I would say that’s kind of my style.
Rustom Birdie: That’s your style. I heard freedom, I heard risk, but I also heard children, and I want to touch on that. Where does that come from? I’m curious is this is from your own time as a child and your upbringing. Where does that style you just described to us ― where did you find that?
Steve Kerr: Probably my own parents. I was kind of a strange kid, to be honest with you. I was super competitive at a very young age, to the point where it was actually kind of embarrassing for the family, and I say that only half-jokingly.
Rustom Birdie: Give us an example. What was the embarrassing part?
Steve Kerr: When you have a family Easter egg hunt and I don’t find the golden egg and throw a complete tantrum at the age of 5 because I didn’t find the golden egg, that’s kind of embarrassing for the parents.
Rustom Birdie: We call that competitive at the GSB. Yeah.
Steve Kerr: Yeah. For whatever reason, that was the way I was wired, and it carried over to sports. I think my parents were really interesting. They gave me a lot of rope, and somehow they knew, when they’d go to my baseball games ― by the way, back then, parents didn’t go to every single game, you know? If it was a Thursday, there’s no way Mom and Dad were going. It was like, they might go on Saturday. It was a little different back then. [Hi, Tara]. So sometimes I’d throw a complete fit, if I got out in baseball or missed a bunch of shots, whatever. I would just throw a complete tantrum, and my parents didn’t really say anything until later, at dinnertime. So somehow, they instinctively knew, just wait until I had cooled off a little bit, and I think it was pretty powerful, because, by that time you cool off, it’s a lot easier to see what you’ve actually done.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: So I had to learn how to just kind of tame that competitiveness and channel it in the right direction, and I think my parents really helped me do that, and so I think that probably is, in some way, maybe subconsciously, kind of the way I guide my own team.
Rustom Birdie: Right. I want to touch more on your upbringing and your parents. You were born in Beirut. Your father, Malcolm, was also born in Beirut. There’s a lot of movement between Lebanon and Egypt, other Mediterranean countries, and then Los Angeles, where your father was a professor. Not many players or GMs or head coaches have that experience at that age or that point of their career. How did that exposure to international culture impact you and kind of shape not just your leadership style, but your worldview moving forward?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. It was probably the best education I received as a child growing up, with living overseas. I was born in Beirut, as you mentioned. I lived in Cairo, Egypt for about three years when my dad was a visiting professor at the American University there, and we spent time in France and Tunisia, and so I had a really good experience in terms of just seeing other cultures and living in other cultures, seeing, especially in Cairo, abject poverty and seeing how wonderful the people were and yet how little so many of them had. When you’re 10, 12 years old, that’s really powerful, especially coming from Los Angeles, where my dad was a professor at UCLA, and we spent a lot of time on campus, and it was kind of this idyllic scene, just like here in Stanford. So the contrast ― and it’s a great perspective for a young person to feel that at a young age.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah.
Steve Kerr: And then I think you naturally sort of build some empathy, but perspective, and I try to introduce perspective with our team as often as I can. It’s something Gregg Popovich was amazing with in San Antonio, and I think it’s really crucial just for all of our players to understand how lucky we are to compete and play basketball for a living and be able to come into the gym every day and be together, and it’s so much fun, and most of the world is trying to get by, so we’re really incredibly blessed.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Are there specific stories from that childhood, the time in Cairo, seeing the abject poverty, that jump to mind, that have stuck with you, that you perhaps have shared with players or colleagues or your staff, that you’ve held onto?
Steve Kerr: There’s an area in Cairo called the City of the Dead, and when I was there ― this was in the late ’70s, early ’80s ― there were like a million people who lived basically in a cemetery, underneath the cemetery area. Obviously a pretty brutal nickname for the place. But I remember driving by it and asking, you know, “Why is it called the City of the Dead?”
“Well, you know, this is a burial ground, and a lot of people are living here, because this is the only space they have.” And it’s like, how do you reconcile that with life in Pacific Palisades, going to UCLA basketball games and thinking the world was a pretty place to be in? I think that all really stuck with me forever. Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: Thanks for sharing that. I feel like the way you shared that and that emotion ― it’s still very alive with you, and you carry that on. You mentioned Gregg Popovich as well, one of, in my opinion, at least personally, and I’m sure you’ll agree, the best leaders out there, and not just coach, but leader in the NBA.
Steve Kerr: Mm-hmm.
Rustom Birdie: You’ve worked with him. You’ve also worked with Phil Jackson of the Bulls. [When you talk about] leadership styles, anything you’ve found from either of those two that you’ve [unintelligible] on and you would like to embody yourself with your team?
Steve Kerr: Oh, yeah. I mean, almost everything that I do is a reflection of either Phil or Pop or Lute Olson. But the thing that I really learned as I went is that, if you’re not authentic to yourself, your players are going to feel that right away. So, while the influence is there from all of those guys, and definitely a lot of the basketball drill work and the philosophy comes from the people I learned playing under, it still has to be my own values that I share with the team every day, because that’s going to be authentic, and they’ll feel that authenticity.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: You know, I was really dealt an amazing hand when I got here, because most first-time coaches take over bad teams, and we already had a good team.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: But the opportunity to coach Steph Curry ― and I could go on with a number of players in this conversation, but Steph in particular, because I think we share two really crucial values that define our whole team, and that is joy and competitiveness. Steph is just a vicious competitor, but you wouldn’t know it, because of the way he looks and the joy that he plays with. We see the world in a similar way. We understand the power of competing for something, but the power of joy within that. Finding that balance every day is kind of the key to what makes our team tick. But to be able to coach someone who shares your values like that is just an incredible asset for a coach, for a leader, and to have somebody like Steph, who’s so strong in terms of his own leadership ― I’ve been just incredibly blessed.
Rustom Birdie: Right. You touched on Steph, and I want to maybe dive deeper into a part of leadership, and that’s people management. Like a lot of us here at the GSB, we’ll graduate, enter jobs where we perhaps have to manage our direct reports and those beneath us in the org chart, as well as upwards, towards our managers, our bosses, and so on. You’ve had a similar experience. You have to manage GM President operations ―
Steve Kerr: Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: — owners, as well as your own staff, players, and so on. What framework do you use, and what’s your mental model [when you] think about leveraging authority, both upwards, downwards, and sideways and ―
Steve Kerr: I think just being aware of everybody’s challenges and trying to remind yourself on a daily basis that every single person in the organization has challenges, vulnerabilities, strengths, weaknesses. We’re all trying for the same thing, but it’s very natural for there to be blame. You know, the front office might sign a player, and it doesn’t turn out. You know, maybe they draft a player and they don’t think we’re developing the player well, or maybe our coaches are thinking, “Well, we should’ve drafted somebody [else].” All that stuff. There’s the potential for that every single day, just like in any business, right?
Rustom Birdie: Yeah.
Steve Kerr: There’s so many people. When you get so many people involved, there’s potential conflict, and obviously, depending on what’s going on with the team, I just try to think each day of “Who do I need to check in with?” and maybe it’s just a phone call or an email, but maintaining those lines of communication constantly, like you said, managing in every direction. It’s really crucial, and it’s a big part of the job.
Rustom Birdie: Right. You mentioned communication there, and I want to maybe touch on that a little bit more. This is specifically around creating a culture that is both diverse and inclusive. You hear that a lot. I want to focus more on the inclusive part, which is not just having a diverse set of individuals on the team, but making them feel like they belong, they have a voice, there is open communication, regardless of where they are in the org chart. I think it was in June 2015, NBA finals, game 4. You started [Andre Iguodala] for the first time. I believe there was a Wall Street Journal article about this that a 28 year old video assistant who was fairly junior on your staff came up with an analysis to prompt you to do that.
Steve Kerr: Mm-hmm.
Rustom Birdie: Can you tell us more about kind of what that story was? And there was a 3 a.m. text message also involved in there somewhere. What enabled a junior staff member to have an impact which went on to make Andre the finals MVP?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. Well, it’s one of the things I really learned from Pop playing in San Antonio. He used to say all the time, “Anybody can have a good idea. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Let’s explore everything, and if one of you has a thought, bring it up,” and he would say the same thing to all the coaches. So it was very inclusive there, and I thought that was really powerful, and I wanted to create the same sort of culture here. So that was the way we operated. We sort of embraced all ideas. I encouraged everybody, all the coaches, to talk during meetings, and if they had something to say, to try to get it out of them. And same thing in the huddles, you know, take a time-out, and we might see something as a coaching staff, and the players might feel differently, and so sometimes I’ll say in the time-out, “Hey, I’m thinking we should do this. What do you guys think?”
And usually it’s Draymond who says, “No, we should do something different,” but Draymond’s really smart, and he’s the one who was out there, and so, you know, a lot of times, like, “All right, you know, if you guys feel strongly about that, let’s do that.”
Rustom Birdie: Yeah.
Steve Kerr: But to do that, you have to be comfortable in your own skin and you have to embrace, I think, a really crucial aspect of leadership, which is that you actually will come across stronger to the people you’re leading if you show that you don’t have all the answers. I think sometimes leaders feel like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to have all the answers. Otherwise, they’re not going to respect me.” I think it’s sort of the opposite, as long as they know you’re putting in the work and that you know what you’re talking about, because what we’re doing is more art than science, you know. It’s a basketball game. So there’s no perfect answer for anything. If you can be collaborative and sometimes allow the players to make a decision, or a video coordinator, there shouldn’t be any hesitation to do that, as long as you don’t blame that person if it doesn’t work. You know, you’ve got to own the decision afterwards, whatever it is, and give credit if credit is due. If you just do that and it comes naturally and you feel comfortable with that, it’s a really powerful force, because then the players take ownership. But doing that while maintaining your sense of “you’re the person in charge” ultimately is kind of the balance that we’re all looking for.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Yeah. I see a lot of similarities with what you said earlier about leadership as giving that freedom, that rope, allowing them to feel like they’re part of the process and they have ownership and then actually being the decision-maker with all the inputs yourself. Perhaps more specifically on people management, there was a situation, I believe, back in November 2018. The Warriors were playing the Clippers down in L.A., nationally televised game. There was a confrontation on television between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, two of your superstars. When you had to deal with that situation, that confrontation, what learnings from your past experiences ― you mentioned Popovich a couple of times and others ― what did you lean on in that moment to defuse that situation and move on from that situation, which was potentially a pretty difficult confrontation that had just occurred?
Steve Kerr: Yeah, that one was a tough one. I had never experienced anything like that, you know, where two players got into it in a game like that. I think that’s more instinct than anything. I think, as a leader, as a coach, you have to have kind of non-negotiables. The players need to know what line can be crossed and what line can’t be crossed, and it just felt like that was too much. Bob Myers and I got together and handled it the way we thought was best. There was no easy answer, and we just tried to do the best we could with it, but it was very, very difficult. Obviously, when you’re doing it with the public staring at you and knowing everything that’s at stake, it’s not an easy position to be in, but it’s going to happen when you’re in a leadership position. There are very difficult decisions to make, and you just kind of have to do what you think is best, I think, and what’s right.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, in your career over many decades, that was the first time you had even come across that, so there’s always a curveball around the corner. There’s always a first time for a new situation. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from that. What have you taken away, and kind of what’s stuck with you going forward, now almost three years on? How has that incident and dealing with that new scenario changed your opinion or style [on] people management?
Steve Kerr: Well, how many people here are going to tweet about it if I answer it with ―
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Keep your hands down.
Steve Kerr: This is part of modern life that’s really difficult, you know. It’s harder and harder to live a public life and really open up and share things that happen, because all of a sudden, you know, things come right back around. That’s one that was very difficult to deal with, and obviously, Draymond brought it up, you know, a couple months back, and then it started all over again. Not my favorite topic discuss.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: Can we talk about the championships that we won?
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Let’s talk about that.
Rustom Birdie: And hopefully another one coming up next year in terms of [unintelligible] but yeah.
Steve Kerr: Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: I want to dive in to perhaps decision-making, Steve. Perhaps I want to go back to a couple of different scenarios, and just if you could share with us the thought process or how you came to those conclusions, decisions, [I think] that would be helpful. The first one was fairly early on in your time with the Warriors. I believe there was a potential trade for Kevin Love, who was just coming off a stellar year with Klay Thompson, who at the time was still fairly [young] in his NBA career. I believe you were very much for Klay staying on the team and not having that trade, and of course, as they say, the rest is history. He’s been an all-star and won three titles. What gave you conviction in that moment, backing and supporting a fairly unknown or unproven player versus more of a genuine kind of proven [expert]?
Steve Kerr: I think that I’ve been in the NBA now in some capacity for 33 years, and one of the things I’ve learned is the only thing you can be sure of is what’s already been proven on the court. Anytime you decide to draft someone or trade for someone, if there’s no history, if there’s no proof that it’s going to work, you’re really taking a chance. And so, when I became the Warriors coach, the undisputed truth was that the Warriors had the fourth best defense in the league, with Klay Thompson guarding a lot of the point guards that are out there, and it had become a really pick-and-roll, dominant game by that point. Now it’s even more so. You’ve got Klay and Steph, and from a basketball standpoint, you’d like to be able to protect Steph, because he’s going to have to handle the ball so much. Maybe put Klay on the point guard, I mean, and it had already worked. So our thinking was we know the Warriors have a great defense already, so if we can improve the offense a little bit ― and we thought we could, watching the tape. We thought a lot of young guys who, with some more seasoning, could generate better shots ― and it was all right there, whereas, you make a big deal, even if it’s for a great player, you just don’t know. I think, in those cases, you’re wise to stick with what you do know, if what you do know is really positive, which it was.
Rustom Birdie: Right. Right. Where did that, the training of that eye and that talent, that conviction come from? Was it just seeing Klay and Steph in the prior seasons and the shoot-arounds and the trainings, or was there something else in your experiences that made you believe that, no, this can [come true], let’s just give it some more time and actually see this come true?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. These guys were pretty young at the time and were already really proficient. You know, Steph was already an all-star. Klay hadn’t been one yet, but you could see the potential. And they were in the playoffs for two years. I mean, they were great. This was a great team. You know, I inherited a team that won 50 games, which had been in the playoffs the previous couple years. The previous staff under Mark Jackson had done a great job establishing a defense. The Warriors hadn’t had a defense in literally like 30 years, so, I mean, they were the team that just scored 125 points, and usually the other team scored 127. You know, they were fun to watch, but they weren’t going anywhere. So it was established under Mark that they were going to become a great defensive team, and the front office did a really good job putting the pieces together. So when we got here, when my staff got here, it was like, “This is real. We could win the whole thing.” That’s why, ultimately, we decided to stay the course. It’s always Bob’s decision, and Bob was right with me in terms of seeing where we could go, because we already had a really good start with the momentum they had built the previous couple years.
Rustom Birdie: Right. You mentioned inheriting a good team. It was your first season as a head coach at the [NBA] level, and you win their first title in 40 years, I believe. The next year you win 73 regular season games. You break your own team 72-and-10 record of the Bulls. A lot of people [here] also potentially will experience fairly rapid rises to success, almost overnight success. What if anything changes, Steve, in your approach to management and just kind of how you approach your day-to-day at the job, when you’ve now gone from a challenger to now at the top of that throne and to being that champion?
Steve Kerr: Really nothing. Nothing changed. It was, I think, the routine of making sure we’re staying locked in on the goals that we had, trying to improve on the certain keys that we thought would take us to the next step. I think the whole idea with anything is to build a culture, a kind of an atmosphere that the players are going to feel, whether you’re winning or you’re losing. The whole point is to help the players get better and to help them have the best possible careers they can have, and so that’s true whether you’re winning championships or you have the worst record in the league. The goal still is the same thing.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: So, as long as you’re generating that feeling in the gym each day, then you have to be comfortable with the criticism that’s going to come your way when you’re losing, because that’s all part of it, and it’s just part of the territory.
Rustom Birdie: Right. How do you think about managing, perhaps, the pressure and kind of the magnifying glass that comes with being at that job? When you said the criticism, the blame ―
Steve Kerr: Mm-hmm.
Rustom Birdie: ― you mentioned nothing changes day to day, but as we go from students into the post-graduation real world, how do we think about using overnight success more tangibly and thinking about our next steps in a way that, perhaps, you were previously not exposed to, and you were not at the top and not in that limelight?
Steve Kerr: Well, first of all, I think life is more difficult now than it’s ever been for all of us, whether you’re in a position of leadership or, if you’re a young person, trying to figure out what you’re going to do. Just the nature of life now with the constant criticism and judgment that we all have at our fingertips that’s so difficult to avoid. I know, when I played, literally, if you wanted to avoid any of the chatter, you just didn’t pick up the morning paper. I had an experience in Chicago. I was trying out for the Bulls, and I had a non-guaranteed contract, and I was just trying to make the team and I was playing great, and I decided to pick up the paper one day, thinking, “Maybe they’re going to say something nice about me,” you know? I pick it up, and you can probably guess where the story’s going.
The writer says, “Well, the Bulls are going to make cuts in the next couple of days, and Steve Kerr’s probably going to get cut, and so-and-so’s probably going to get cut,” and I was crushed. I was like, “What is he talking about? I’m playing so well.” The next day at practice I was terrible. So I think about that story sometimes, because now it’s like times a thousand for everybody, whether you’re trying out for an NBA team or just trying to get through high school.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: Hearing all the judgment and the criticism. It’s brutal. So how do you navigate that? How do you avoid that? Finding balance ― what I’ve found with our players is the guys who have the most balance in their life are the ones how handle all this stuff the best. Work-life balance is just crucial. The days of coaches sleeping in their office all night ― I mean, maybe there are still coaches out there doing it, probably in the NFL. I think that’s their thing. But it’s just insane. I think you have to have a life. You have to have balance. Steph is a great example. He loves life. He loves his family. He loves playing golf. He loves being with his kids and being at home for dinner, and every day is a gift to him. He takes plenty of heat, he takes plenty of criticism, but he’s able to manage it and navigate it. We’ve had a lot of players who haven’t been able to, because their lives aren’t as balanced. I guess that’s my advice, is to really seek balance, that work-life relationship balance. I find it through ― I do a lot of yoga. I like to read. I find, if I can get into a good book, I’m just kind of in a better frame of mind each day. I like to cook, just cooking a meal at home. You know, I’m a chef, but if I find a good recipe and just go buy the ingredients and cook and have a game on in the background and have a beer, that’s a great day.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. That sounds fun.
Steve Kerr: Yeah. But that helps me when people say, “Why the hell doesn’t Kerr run more pick-and-roll for Curry?” You know, I can just cook a meal and have a beer.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Yeah. That must be nice. But like you said, not all your players have that balance.
Steve Kerr: Right.
Rustom Birdie: You mentioned Steph, and he does that. What is your role as a head coach? Is it a nudge in the right direction? Is it more explicit than that? How do you kind of corral as many of your roster to [want] that?
Steve Kerr: Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: Because you’ve clearly seen the benefits of that balance.
Steve Kerr: Right.
Rustom Birdie: How do you do that?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think that’s one area where perspective comes in, reminding players just how fortunate we are. You can do that in a variety of ways, bringing in guest speakers. We’re very lucky because people want to come speak to the Warriors, and so we’re able to get a lot of really interesting people to come in. Michael Lewis came in, the author ― came in to speak to our team. Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine came in and gave a presentation on their company, on Beats. We’ve had Alicia Keys, and she came in and talked about her process of writing a song and writing music.
Rustom Birdie: Wow.
Steve Kerr: We’ve had Tommie Smith, the sprinter from the 1968 Olympics, who held up his fist for racial equality.
Rustom Birdie: Right.
Steve Kerr: Some incredible guests, and so trying to present something to the players that is not just “Here’s how we’re guarding pick-and-roll.” It’s like, this is ―
Rustom Birdie: This is life. Yeah.
Steve Kerr: This is life. Right.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah.
Steve Kerr: And then, beyond that, we try to offer them as much assistance as we can. We have a mindfulness coach to help them with meditation. We’ll do some of that as a team, and then they’ll have private sessions, where we try to help people to get comfortable learning how to perform under all this judgment we all live under.
Rustom Birdie: Right. Yeah. Perhaps this judgment ― sometimes I see a double standard for the athletes and the people under that spotlight versus the rest of us who are more of an office 9-to-5 job. For example, a lot of tech companies here in the Bay Area have unlimited paid time off. We have unlimited vacation days and so on. When, let’s say, LeBron James does it, it’s called load management. If he misses a primetime game, people are upset, the television rights and the sponsors and so on. Is that fair? Is that a double standard that we have as a society between our athletes and everyone else?
Steve Kerr: Yeah, but that’s part of the deal. You know, we try to talk to our team every year about what the NBA is about. When you’re playing in the NBA, you’re going to get booed. You’re going to get criticized. You’re going to get injured. You’re going to get cut. You’re going to get traded. But if you navigate it well, it’s an amazing job, and you’re going to make a lot of money and you’re going to have some great experiences, and you get to play basketball for a living, and this is the tradeoff, so you got to understand that right away.
I won’t name this teammate, but when I was late in my career, I was playing for the Blazers, and one of our rookies on that team would sit with me and another veteran player, a guy named Chris Dudley. Maurice Cheeks was the coach. I think he wanted this rookie to sit with us so we could share our wisdom. We were both getting ready to retire. We’d been in the league a long time. And this player ― the first week of the season, and he’s exhausted. It’s been a month of training camp and games, and we’re maybe a month into the season. He says, “Hey, guys, I have a question.”
We said, “What’s that?”
And he says, “How much time do we get off for Christmas?”
Chris and I kind of looked at each other. It was like, “Oh, boy, this going to be a long, long year.”
Rustom Birdie: He has a lot to learn.
Steve Kerr: “We don’t have any time off for Christmas.”
And, you know, you could see he was heartbroken. He said, “We don’t get any time off at all?”
[He’s] like, “No.” It turned out the coach actually made him go home for a couple of days, he was so homesick, you know. But you kind of have to know what you’re getting into.
One of the problems right now with the league ― it’s not a problem; it’s more of an issue ― is that players are coming in at a younger and younger age. We just drafted two guys in the lottery who are 19. They each spent one year after high school, and here they are. 25 years ago it was guys like Tim Duncan and Patrick Ewing [who] were playing four years in college and doing what you do in college, you know, growing up. So to have to grow up in the NBA at 19 and not really knowing anything is very difficult, so we’ve got to try to do the best we can.
Rustom Birdie: Right. I want to move on to perhaps some of the work you did last year while the world was in lockdown. You had a podcast called Flying Coach, I believe, with Pete Carroll.
Steve Kerr: Mm-hmm.
Rustom Birdie: There was a specific episode. I believe that was early June, when you had Gregg Popovich as a guest, and this was right after the George Floyd murders. You described your thoughts on that issue. You described how a player of yours, I believe [Andre Iguodala], had to tell you about the Tulsa riots, despite you having been a student of American history in both high school and college.
Steve Kerr: Mm-hmm.
Rustom Birdie: And I think the words used to describe the moment was an absence of leadership in our nation. There’s a disease. This is very much an issue with specifically the white population. About a year and a half on, Steve, what are your thoughts on those topics today? How have we changed? How have we improved, if at all?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. It’s so hard because we’re being held back by the incredible division that exists, the political division that exists. What Andre asked me ― he said, “Did you ever hear of the Tulsa race riots?”
I said, “No.” This was a year and a half ago. Since that time a lot has come out. There’s been documentaries.
Steve Kerr: But my point at the time was I took several years of American history and never heard one word about that. Our curriculum in high school and college when it came to African-American history was mainly Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King and these figures who we celebrated, for good reason, but we didn’t flip it around. We never said, “Okay, why was it that Jackie Robinson wasn’t allowed to play in the big leagues? Why weren’t black people allowed to play in the big leagues before that?” We didn’t ever really explore that in school, right? So now there’s this movement, a year ago, and I think everybody who’s involved in this movement, the whole point is we need to reconcile some of our sins, right? Our original sin especially. We can’t just ignore it, which is what we’ve done, because you see how it’s manifested itself in so many ways, George Floyd’s murder being an easy example and a terrible example. But I think the point is what’s happened now is you immediately get this conversation on critical race theory, which is just nothing more than a fancy way of saying, “Hey, let’s teach real African-American history to our kids.” It seems too simple, right?
Rustom Birdie: Yeah.
Steve Kerr: It’s like, “Yeah. That would be really good,” because then maybe kids could grow up and learn that racism is really bad and teach them at a very young age, because it’s clearly something that is sort of taught, and yet all of a sudden the argument is, “Well, we don’t want to teach our kids that they’re bad and they’re bad people.” Like, nobody’s suggesting that, but this is how every issue that we have in this country now becomes. It’s like this, and it’s all for political gain, and it’s really demoralizing, and it’s just another example of how we’re sort of flailing right now as a country and trying to get our shit together.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah, unfortunately. I mean, while the politics of it play a massive role in what made all of our lives a lot easier, what can we as individuals, perhaps, do on an individual level in our communities for the people around us?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: I mean, I know you’ve shared a little bit about this earlier, but can you tell us more about how you’ve had, perhaps, those uncomfortable conversations with your team, with your family and your community?
Steve Kerr: Well, I think, number one, we need to educate ourselves the best we can, whether that’s through our own reading or just extending ourselves in a way that we haven’t done before. Bryan Stevenson is another incredible guest speaker we had, the civil rights lawyer, and he talks about proximity. He said proximity is so important. We asked him, “What do you mean by proximity?”
He said, “Well, proximity to the people that you’re trying to help, right? Boots on the ground. You know, if you really want to make an impact, actually being proximate to people you’re trying to help, being in the community in some form of grassroots organization, movement ― what can you do that actually is going to not just make an impact, but make you feel it, make you feel what’s actually happening.” I think that’s what the NBA has really tried to do. Every team now is connected with a local grassroots organization that is trying to improve the lives of people in the inner city and trying to do positive things in terms of race relations. So I think that’s the challenge, is how do we actually feel it and be proximate to it.
Rustom Birdie: I love that. I had not heard that analogy with proximity before, but ―
Steve Kerr:& Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: ― I think being present and as close to the source of it ―
Steve Kerr: Mm-hmm.
Rustom Birdie: ― definitely makes a difference. Just stepping back, Steve, the George Floyd murder and racial injustice was just one issue of many injustices that are happening around the world, and some are captured by the media. Some are not. How do you as a leader and as a person with a platform decide when to speed up on an issue and an injustice versus whether to not do so? We too will most likely be in those situations in the business world ―
Steve Kerr: Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: ― where it’s a lot happening out there with our employees, our staff, our community. What’s the framework we can use? How can we think about when do we lean in ―
Steve Kerr: Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: ― when do we not?
Steve Kerr: No, it’s a great question. I think what I’ve realized is to narrow down my focus to the things that I’m really passionate about and informed about. It’s really difficult to go down the path of “Hey, I want to be an activist” and start talking about something you really don’t know a whole lot about. Those issues are better to sit out. For me, the issues that I’m most interested in that have really been the biggest dynamics in my own life are gun violence and racial equality. I lost my dad to gun violence when I was 18. He was 52. So gun violence is something that affects me deeply and my family, and so I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of the different gun violence groups, gun violence prevention groups, whether it’s Sandy Hook or the Brady Foundation or Giffords’ March for Our Lives. I’ve done fundraising, but I’ve also learned a lot, and so I feel much more comfortable speaking out about those things. And then the racial justice. It’s just I’m living every day with a group of people whose lives are directly impacted and whose families are directly impacted by the injustice that exists, and so it’s really easy for me to feel passionate and connected to those things.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. It’s always going to be a personal choice, but using the idea of being informed and educated on those topics is a good starting way of deciding when to lean into those issues.
Steve Kerr: Yeah, I mean, and I think that’s sort of personal choice, too. I mean, I’ve been pretty passionate about those issues for a long time, but I just leaned into them maybe five, six years ago. I think I’ve told this story before. I think it might’ve been the 2016 finals. Maybe it was the conference finals, but we had our third moment of silence in as many weeks. This was the Pulse Nightclub massacre.
Rustom Birdie: Orlando.
Steve Kerr: Yeah, in Orlando. We were having this huge game and we have yet another moment of silence, and it’s like, “So what? Are we just going to keep doing this? Like, it’s great. Let’s honor the victims and their families, but maybe we should ― excuse my language ― maybe we should effing do something about it, right?”
Rustom Birdie: Yep. Absolutely.
Steve Kerr: I mean, it’s just infuriating. It’s [infuriating], and I finally just had enough. Just sort of apropos of nothing, I was doing a podcast, a local podcast with Tim Kawakami about basketball, and I brought it up and took a lot of heat for it from gun rights activists and learned a lot, but it was good. It felt good, and I dove in and I started to get my bearings and started to realize where I could actually make an impact.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. I did not know about that 2016 finals and the podcast, so. That was inspiring. Before we open it up to Q&A, I wanted to ask a question which we plan to ask all of our speakers this year for “View from the Top.” Our theme, Steve, is “Beyond Expectations.” You’ve certainly, in the stories you’ve shared right now, have gone beyond the expectations set forth by society for an NBA player, a GM, a head coach. If you were to perhaps just summarize what inspires you, what motivates you to go beyond just those expectations, what would you say?
Steve Kerr: I think what I love about coaching and what inspires me is this feeling of generating joy and happiness as a group. It gives me chills just thinking about a team that’s connected and playing well and laughing. I’m really excited about this year. We added our first exhibition game last night. You know this, but sometimes you just feel it, and sometimes you don’t. Last night I’m watching our game, and I just had chills. This group is connected.
Rustom Birdie: Nice.
Steve Kerr: We’re going to have a really fun season, and that’s what keeps me coming to work every day and wanting to really succeed, is that feeling of momentum when you just grasp something, and then you can feel it, and it starts to grow, and you’re just trying to feed it, and so many people are interested in it and enjoying it as well. When our team plays well and the community gets involved and all of a sudden everybody’s excited, that’s the best feeling there is for me.
Rustom Birdie: That’s great. As a Warriors fan, you getting chills on the first preseason games is exciting. It bodes well for the rest of our season, and I’m excited for that. Great. Let’s open it up to questions. I think we have the first one right over there. If you could just introduce yourself, please.
Male Voice 1: Hey, Steven. First of all, thank you very much for being with us tonight. I’m Santiago [Otarca], class of 2023. I would like you to know that I am from Argentina. I wanted to travel back in time to 1997, game 6 against the Utah Jazz, of Karl Malone and John Stockton. You called a timeout, 25 seconds left on the clock. What were you thinking, and how did you manage to convince just Michael Jordan when you went into the huddle ― you [looked] him in the eyes and shouted, “If you need it, if it comes up, I will be ready.”
Steve Kerr: I planted this question.
Rustom Birdie: Yeah.
Steve Kerr: Well, you just told the story. Yeah, that was the moment that every kid dreams of when you’re shooting in your driveway or at school or whatever and you count down the seconds, NBA championship on the line. To actually live that was incredible. When you’re a kid, when you miss, you just pretend that you got fouled and now you go to the free throw line and you shoot two free throws, but when it’s happening, you can’t quite have that luxury. But it was a moment that I think it took me a long time to get to the point where I could actually succeed in a situation like that. I was very self-conscious when I started playing in the NBA, and I didn’t really feel clutch. You know, I felt like I was thinking too much. So I learned a lot, especially from Michael Jordan, who took game-winning shots almost every week and missed plenty of them, and [it] didn’t seem to bother him that much. And there was a great lesson in there, that you got to go for it and you got to be able to live with the failure if you don’t ― but the best way to succeed is without considering the failure, just playing, just going, and getting out of your own head. So that was a moment for me that was probably years in the making, and so, obviously, a great moment and something I’ll have forever.
Rustom Birdie: Next question. We have one back there.
Male Voice 2: Steve, thanks so much for speaking with us today. My name is [Tajus]. I’m a first-year MBA student here. My question today is about building championship culture. This is tough for me to say as a lifelong Cleveland Cavaliers fan, but if you could take us back to 2015, what were your top priorities and values that you sought to instill in the organization, and who did you work with and lean on to help build these values and priorities?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. Thank you for the question, and congratulations on the 2016 championship.
Steve Kerr: When I became a coach, I spent a lot of time preparing to coach, but I didn’t become a coach until I was 49. I did some television work after I was done playing, and I spent a lot of time preparing, and I talked to a lot of coaches. One of the guys who really made an impact on me was Pete Carroll, and I went to see Pete in Seattle. I loved the way his teams played. I sat down with him. After we had spent a couple of days together and I was watching practice, we sat down in his office, and he said, “So how are you going to coach your team?”
And I said, “You mean, like, what offense are we going to run?”
He said, “No, that stuff doesn’t even matter.” And I had just spent a year trying to figure out what our offense was going to look like, you know. He said, “Really, that stuff you’ll figure out.” He said, “It’s what’s it going to feel like for the players and the coaches to come into the gym every day and what’s your culture going to be like.”
I suppose I had never really thought of it in those terms, but I knew, playing for Phil and Pop, they had built these amazing cultures. But Pete really sort of clarified ― and he told me the story of how he sort of figured out how to incorporate a culture, and he asked me to go home and think of the four values that were the most important values in my life, and that my job as a coach, once I figured out what those values were, was to make those values come alive every day, and that the players would feel that authenticity, since they were my values. Pete was the guy who sort of laid it out there, and it was really fascinating. Joy and competition were two of them. Mindfulness was another one. Everything that we did was built on competing and joy and mindfulness, and compassion was the fourth one. Everything we did and the way we treated the team was based on those values. We incorporated a ton of joy into our practice sessions. We competed at everything. We kept score of everything. We treated our players with great compassion. But making those values come alive, to me, was the lesson of “This is what it means to build a culture.”
Rustom Birdie: Right. We have time for one last one over there. We’ll wrap up.
Steve Kerr: Yeah.
Male Voice 3: Hi. This is Diego Ramirez, MBA, 23, from Mexico. My question is regarding how you experience different [joys] as a player and as a coach. I practice the sport competitively, and one of my greatest fears has been retirement, because I feel that it is a great part of my identity that I’m going to lose. What has been your favorite part of coaching, and how do you compare the feeling of winning a championship as a player and as a coach?
Steve Kerr: Yeah. A great question. I think, as a player, you’re very locked in on your own game, your own routine, and as a coach, you’re thinking about everybody else and you’re trying to help everyone. Actually, I’ve found winning a championship as a coach was even more gratifying than as a player, because you’ve put in all this energy into the whole group and you see how happy everyone in the organization is. When you’re a player, it’s an amazing feeling, too, especially with your teammates, but it’s more insular. It’s more you’re just locked in on your own routine day after day. Coaching, you feel responsible for everyone.
Rustom Birdie: That’s great. Thanks for answering those, Steve. We’re almost done. Before we let you go, we want to do a quick lightning round.
Steve Kerr:& Okay.
Rustom Birdie: I’ll mention a couple of words or phrases, and just you pick one of them. Ready?
Steve Kerr: Yep.
Rustom Birdie: Okay. Space Jam 1 or Space Jam 2?
Steve Kerr: 1.
Rustom Birdie: 1. Okay. So does that mean Jordan over LeBron, or is that not an ―
Rustom Birdie: Just an indictment on their acting, not them as players.
Steve Kerr: Oh, okay.
Rustom Birdie: Just as actors. Yeah.
Steve Kerr: Yeah. I didn’t see Space Jam 2, so.
Rustom Birdie: Ooh, okay. So there we go. Messi or Ronaldo?
Steve Kerr: Ooh. Messi.
Rustom Birdie: Messi.
Steve Kerr: There’s my Argentinean guy right there.
Rustom Birdie: There you go. What’s your team?
Steve Kerr: Liverpool.
Rustom Birdie: Liverpool? Liverpool F.C.?
Rustom Birdie: We have some Liverpool in here as well. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic?
Steve Kerr: Rafael Federer.
Rustom Birdie: Rafael Federer. Okay.
Rustom Birdie: Crowd pleaser. Better dressed team, 1996 Bulls or 2017 Warriors?
Steve Kerr: Do coaches count?
Rustom Birdie: Well, you were a player on one and [not] a coach on the other.
Steve Kerr: Yeah. 2017 Warriors, because I was a player on the ’96 Bulls, and I brought the level down.
Rustom Birdie:; You brought them down.
Steve Kerr: Yeah.
Rustom Birdie: That’s fair. Best city for food in the NBA?
Steve Kerr: Ooh. Chicago.
Rustom Birdie: Chicago. Great. Last one. Losing game 7 of the NBA finals to LeBron James at home, on Father’s Day, or getting punched in the face by Michael Jordan?
Steve Kerr: Wow. That’s quite a way to finish the night. Really uplifting there. Yeah. Thank you. Anyway, I don’t know if you know this, but I actually went at ―
Rustom Birdie: Yep.
Steve Kerr: ― Michael, and I actually hit him in the fist with my jaw.
Rustom Birdie: Right. We have an answer. That’s an answer.
Steve Kerr: An ovation. I get an ovation for getting punched. I’m not sure I understand, but I’ll go with it.
Rustom Birdie: Thanks for your time. I think we learned a lot. We really appreciate this, Steve. I think you’ve left us with lessons on mindfulness, on authenticity, on proximity, that I think we all can take with us as we graduate and move on from GSB. I want to wish you, your family, the team the best of health and good luck for the season, and go Warriors.
Steve Kerr: Right. Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate it.
Steve Kerr: Thank you.
Rustom Birdie:You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Rustom Birdie of the MBA Class of 2022. Lily Sloane composed our theme music and Michael Reilly and Jenny Luna produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website. Follow us on social media @stanfordgsb.
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