Steve Kerr and Scottie Pippen Reveal 3 Major Keys to Leading a Great Team

Between the two of them, Steve Kerr and Scottie Pippen have won 11 NBA championships. Here are 3 leadership lessons they learned along the way.

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Joeph via Flickr
Joeph via Flickr

The 1990s Chicago Bulls are widely recognized as one of the best basketball teams in NBA history.

Of course, they were led by one of the greatest players of all time, Michael Jordan. But any fan of basketball knows it’s a team sport, and superstars not only need an effective supporting cast, they need a good coach who can keep the entire team focused and on the right path. And for the Bulls, that would be Phil Jackson.

That’s why I was drawn to a recent interview between ESPN’s Rachel Nichols and former Bulls Scottie Pippen and Steve Kerr. Both players were pivotal members of those Bulls teams: Pippen an NBA hall-of-famer who was on board for all six titles, and Kerr a key role player who won three titles with the Bulls and two more with the San Antonio Spurs. (Kerr went on to win three championships as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors.)

In the course of the interview, Nichols asked about Jackson’s coaching style with the Bulls, and the answers proved enlightening. They also hold great lessons for anyone leading a team. 

Here are three key highlights:

1. Get to know your team.

“I think Phil’s approach was to try to motivate us during the regular season, [something] that he felt would keep us interested,” said Pippen.

Pippen then detailed how Jackson spoke to him privately, challenging him to become a player known for his defense, and asking him to spearhead the team’s defensive effort. This move is noteworthy because it helped maximize Pippen’s potential and carve out a role that he would embrace for years to come.

Takeaway: If you’re leading a team, get to know each member as an individual. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What motivates them? Then, use that knowledge–both to praise them, and to challenge them.

2. Help them set goals.

A general challenge is great, but Jackson went a step further by providing specific goals. 

For example, Pippen says one year the coach sat him down and said that he wanted him to reach out to become a first-team defender (an award reserved for the top five defensive players in the NBA). This goal helped provide Pippen focus and filled a vital need on the team.

Takeaway: As a manager, leader, or coach, your objective is to help your people identify specific and attainable goals that will help make them better–and make the team better.

3. Keep work interesting.

Once teams are successful at their jobs, it’s easy for them to become bored and stagnant. Awards and accolades become stale, as a feeling of “been there, done that” begins to settle in.

So, how do you keep your people engaged in those circumstances?

“One thing that Phil and [Spurs Head Coach Greg Popovich] did in San Antonio was they mixed it up a lot,” Kerr said. “Practice wasn’t the same thing every day.”

Kerr then told a story of how Jackson surprised the Bulls one day.

“In New York during the playoffs one day we were supposed to go to practice and Phil took us to the Staten Island Ferry. It was a beautiful day. And instead of practicing we got on the ferry and just went out cruising around.”

Takeaway: Try to utilize the elements of fun and surprise. You can steal Jackson’s idea for a field trip, or you can find another way to shake things up, to re-engage your people and build team chemistry.

Succeed at doing that, and you’ll make work more than just another boring, monotonous job–but rather, a place that motivates and inspires. 

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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