Pat Riley, Inside-Out: Core Leadership Views

The Daily Coach spoke to Basketball Hall-of-Fame coach and executive Pat Riley about essential qualities for impactful leaders and the elements of effective communication.

On Pat Riley’s first day as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, his wife gave him a critical reminder.

“A house divided against itself surely will not stand,” she said.

Riley still thinks about that quote when he reflects on the disappointment of the 1980-81 season.

The selflessness and sacrifice of a year prior gave way to jealousy and resentment — and the Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

The turbulence provided Riley critical lessons in ego management and perspective on the multitude of factors that can derail even the most-talented teams.

For Part 2 of “Pat Riley, Inside-Out,” The Daily Coach spoke to the Hall-of-Fame coach and executive about the external elements that can tear a team apart, essential qualities for impactful leaders, and the hallmarks of an effective message.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Coach Riley, thanks again for taking the time to do this. You mentioned some of the great players you were around with the Lakers. In your eyes, do you coach a great player or do you simply manage him?

I think you have to do both. You coach the hell out of them, and you manage the situations that surround coaching them. I can remember Wilt Chamberlain, who I played with, being interviewed and somebody said something to him about coaching and managing him. He said, “Look, nobody manages me.” Only Wilt could get away with a statement like that. Nobody manages Wilt Chamberlain (laughs).

Coaching, that’s different. I think you coach players hard, and as I mentioned the four or five Ps, I’d add a fifth “P” to Bobby Knight’s philosophy (see Part One). You have to feel privileged to be part of something that can be great. I was very, very fortunate to be with the Lakers. For somebody who had never been a head coach — to become a head coach of one of the most incredible teams in history — there was a lot of resentment I think out there in the coaching workplace about some broadcaster getting this job and winning championships.

I coached them hard, but I was fair with them. I never insulted anybody, but I would let them know how I’d feel, and I think we’ve lost a lot of that today in some way, shape or form. I think players want to know really where they stand. I was taught that. “Where do I stand? If I don’t stand in good stead with you, how can I get better?”

You’ve got to coach them hard, but you have to be fair with them. That’s what I’ve always felt.

I want to ask you about something you’re synonymous with in leadership circles: “The Disease of Me.” Can you take us back to its origins?

“The Disease of Me” is simply what it is. It’s about someone not getting out of themselves and wanting everything for themselves and resentment (building).

A lot of things that happened in our second year with the Lakers — this was 1981 after we won the championship in ’80 — was simply the team started to fall apart.

There were a lot of outside things that happened that bothered a lot of the players. We could never really get that together that year, and Houston took us out in the first round. They blamed Magic (Johnson) for it. There was some resentment within the organization that Jerry Buss had paid Magic $25 million on a 25-year contract. It just created an atmosphere after we had won a title of “The Disease of Me.” “I want mine.” That really hurt us that year.

What did you learn from that experience that served you in the long term?

It doesn’t make any difference what happens to you. It’s how you deal with it. Adversity is always an element we have to overcome. But in every adversity is a seed of equivalent benefit. You, as a coach, have to find that seed for them or for the team and replant it or regrow it because things happen every day that are tough, and you can’t let them slide. Then, you get to, “O.K. what’s going to happen now after adversity, and how are we going to react to it?”

You have to go through those years and grow from them and keep priming the pump on teamwork, and we did, and we got over that. The next year, we won a championship and came back strong with a more-together team and a better understanding. So, unless you can get out of yourself and your selfishness, and “I want everything for me, and I really don’t care about anybody else,” you’re not going to make it in this league. I don’t care how talented you are. You’re not going to win at a high level with that attitude.

You’ve got to get out of yourself and get with the program. You’ve got to get other people to get out of themselves and get with the program. You’ve got to voluntarily, in some way, shape or form, do the things you don’t want to do in order to achieve what really needs to be done. You’re either with me or against me. You’re either in or you’re out.

What are the critical qualities for a coach or leader in your opinion?

(This is from) Max De Pree’s book. Leadership is an interactive relationship whereby you get put in a position, you get hired, you grow to that position, however you get to the position, you must get a result. That’s it. That’s the definition of leadership. It’s an interactive relationship you have with everybody because you’ve been put in a position to get a result.

So, how do you do that? How do you get that result? You only get it through trust. When it comes to trust, it has to be sincere as a leader. Your coaching has to be sincere. You’re not just coaching them to get something out of them for yourself. You have to be sincere in your efforts in helping them achieve what they really want to achieve if they put in the hard work.

You can only gain their trust if you’re competent. Players know immediately if you’re putting them on, if you’re a fake or a fraud as a head coach. You’ve got to be competent, and your competency has to lead to them becoming better. They have to believe that you can help them become better players and they can earn more and reach the dreams they want to reach. But you have to be competent.

The last thing is you have to be reliable. They will only trust you if you’re going to be there when it’s tough. In the pros, that’s a hard one because sometimes players get traded. You’re teaching trust and can be trading a guy tomorrow. That has to be explained to them — that this is a business that goes both ways. But you have to be reliable in those instances where things start going sideways for a player or for a team. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE, via Getty Images

What do you believe are the keys to effective communication?

When it comes to real communication, you better have a good message, and you better have one every day.

A lot of my time spent was in deep thought after games, before the next practice. What was I going to say tomorrow pre-practice, post-practice? What was I going to say in my pregame speech, at halftime, postgame? What was I going to say when I had to bring a player in individually and talk to him? What was my message going to be to my owner or to the community in the press about the team?

Communication comes with a message. You better have a good one, and you better think about it. If you can’t come up with a good one, then go take one from somebody else and figure out how to make it yours. We all do that. I think what you do with The Daily Coach gives all of these coaches and leaders great opportunities to read this material, and use it in their own way, and build it, and made some of that their own. The message is really important.

The second point with communication is your tone of voice. Your tone of voice would probably be most important in how you talk to people, whether it’s with a real negative tone of voice, loud tone, accusatory, compassionate or an empathetic tone of voice. Your tone of voice is important as you communicate.

The last thing is your body language, how you’re moving, how you’re standing, what you’re wearing that day, how confident you are in that message. When I talk about temporary insanity, I’m moving my arms around. I’m throwing my fist into my palm of the other hand or something.

People will get the message through those three things, but you’ve got to have a message. You can’t just get up there and B.S. somebody because they’re not going to buy it. You have to be honest with them.

Part Three of “Pat Riley, Inside-Out” will run next Saturday, Oct. 28.

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