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23 Quotes on Leadership and Excellence from Pat Riley’s “The Winner Within”

Pat Riley is one of the most winning coaches in NBA history. During the 1980s, he led the Los Angeles Lakers (known as the Showtime Lakers) to four NBA titles and since arriving in Miami, has led the Heat to three more titles of their own. The NBA Hall of Famer, who also won an […]

Pat Riley is one of the most winning coaches in NBA history. During the 1980s, he led the Los Angeles Lakers (known as the Showtime Lakers) to four NBA titles and since arriving in Miami, has led the Heat to three more titles of their own.

The NBA Hall of Famer, who also won an additional NBA championship as a player in 1972, has been around enough excellence over the years to fill a book. Which, conveniently for us, he did with 1993’s The Winner Within.

The book distills Riley’s coaching philosophy in an engaging and smart style, weaving examples of leadership and personal excellence (both on the court as well as the corporate world and the battlefield), providing a blueprint for leaders, coaches, and players for finding excellence for themselves.

While there is a ton of things that makes The Winner Within such an engrossing read, here is a selection of my favorite quotes from Riley’s book.

“When a milestone is conquered, the subtle erosion called entitlement begins its consuming grind. The team regards its greatness as a trait and a right. Halfhearted effort becomes habit and saps a champion’s strength.”

  1. “When a milestone is conquered, the subtle erosion called entitlement begins its consuming grind. The team regards its greatness as a trait and a right. Halfhearted effort becomes habit and saps a champion’s strength.”
  2. “Complacency is the last hurdle standing between any team and its potential greatness.”
  3. “Being a game player is a fiction some people use to excuse themselves from working as hard as they should. People who think they are game players are what coaches call ‘floaters.’ They float along on a cushion of talent or of sheer physical size and strength… Floaters ultimately become victims of their own talent.”
  4. “Excellence is the gradual result of always wanting to do better.”
  5. “No matter how much progress a team or an individual makes, no matter how much they lift their aspirations and their performance, old behavior patterns will always try to prevail. You simply have to be wise to yourself. Know your own style of backsliding, catch it as early as possible and turn it around.”
  6. “Mastery is built on excellence—the gradual result of always wanting to do better.”
  7. “You beat fatigue by continually reexamining and reaffirming your game plan. You beat it by reality-checking your opponents constantly. You beat fatigue by adjusting your game plan to the continual personal growth and perception changes of the individuals on your team. Most of all, you beat it by superior stamina and the mental training that lets you be more alert to the world around you than your competitors are.”
  8. “Management must speak with one voice. The chain of command must run from players to coach, from coach to manager, from manager to owner. When it doesn’t, management itself becomes a peripheral opponent to the team’s Mission.”
  9. “Sometimes you have to respect your competition so much that you treat them with no respect at all. You have to defeat a great player’s aura more than his game.”
  10. “When you go after a goal and you’re not prepared, you soon find yourself pressing. The harder you try, the less effective you become… Poor preparation is an enemy of free-breathing performance and an invitation to choking.”
  11. “You don’t back into great achievements… You have to approach every potential great achievement in a state of total confidence.”
  12. “Choking not only postpones victory. It also inflicts psychological wounds along the way.”
  13. “We sometimes need adversity to fathom our true depths. Dealing with profound loss can be the most meaningful, most rewarding event in our lives.”
  14. “Be angry. Be upset. Be determined to come back stronger next time. But not be accepting. People who are negatively conditioned accept defeat. People who are positive don’t.”
  15. “But sympathy is like junk food. It has no real nourishment. The emptiness comes back very quickly… There is never, really, any release from the consequences of adversity until you decide to do something about them.”
  16. “Positive peer pressure intensifies any team’s performance and brings it closer to peak. Covenants can be energized only in an atmosphere of total trust. That trust makes honest criticism a sign of confidence and caring.”
  17. “Ultimately, a team belongs to the people who get the job done. The leader exists to serve them, to create an environment in which their talents can flourish, and that is the coach’s or leaders’ obligation to the Covenant.”
  18. “Keep reminding yourself that attitude is the mother of luck.”
  19. “Every team that wants to move toward significance and greatness has to decide what truths will hold to be self-evident and to get those values circulating throughout the organization.”
  20. “The most difficult thing for individuals to do when they’re part of the team is to sacrifice. It’s so easy to become selfish in a team environment… Willing sacrifice is the great paradox. You must give up something in the immediate present—comfort, ease, recognition, quick rewards—to attract something even better in the future: a full heart and sense that you did something which counted.”
  21. “The greater a single teammate’s success, the stronger the resentment can be from the weakest 20 percent.”
  22. “Magic Johnson believed that if he helped everyone around him get what they wanted out of the game, then winning would always follow.”
  23. “When a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort—it is ready to climb.”

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Riley’s book is one of my favorite books for coaches. It is available in paperback and hardcover from Amazon. “The Winner Within” is highly recommended for anyone looking to build organizational and individual excellence.

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