Different styles, yes, but the results are similar: After long careers, both have similar win-loss records for their teams and are acknowledged as top coaches in the collegiate ranks. So what do Knight and Krzyzewski tell us about leadership?
The professor contends that your beliefs about human nature "influences your leadership style."
"If you believe people are fundamentally good—good meaning that they're trying to do their best, they're self-motivated, they want to perform—then your fundamental leadership style will be one way. It will be empowering them, getting obstacles out of the way, and setting high goals while maintaining standards.
"If you believe people are fundamentally bad—if you believe people are constantly looking to get over and get by and won't do anything unless they're watched—then you'll tend to lead with a very transactional management style that's built primarily around rewards and punishments. Tight supervision, a controlling type of leadership style characterized by a great deal of social distance between leaders and led."
When the professor asks his students which coach -- Knight or Krzyzewski -- they'd hired, responses vary, often by age, with younger students (with little real-world experience) perceiving Coach Knight "as little more than a bully."
But then the older students in the class "tell stories of doing their best work under a mentor with Coach Knight's tough-love approach. Some also recall their experiences as managers when a stern approach helped set an employee on a more productive course." They also hear about how many of Coach Knight's former players consider him a close friend.
According to the professor, "The ones that say they couldn't imagine learning from someone like a Coach Knight, they hear these stories and start questioning, 'Well, maybe there is another way of thinking about leading.'"
The idea is to get students "to consider that there are alternative ways of influencing people, and that different people respond to different styles."
Sure, Knight's older-generation, throw-the-chair leadership style has gone out of favor, but a disciplined, top-down approach can still be effective in particular situations. Some employees work better when structure is imposed on them, [the professor] observes. Others crave autonomy or teamwork.
The professor has personal experience with Coach Knight as he attended a summer camp and Coach Knight was leading drills one day.
"I was in high school, and what I remember was he'd throw all the balls out [of the gym] and lock the doors. He'd only do defensive positioning drills. As a young kid all you want to do is shoot the ball and play games.
But for a half day, he would just have us doing defensive positioning drills, never touching a basketball, and he'd run around and cuss us out and keep us in the right defensive position. It was all about drills, it was all about discipline.
In retrospect, he got us to work on the fundamentals of basketball, the things we didn't want to do. We dreaded the day that he would come to camp. In the end he made us all better defensive players because of it.
There are skills... that you only get through repetition, drill, habit, and discipline. A lot of times we're not real good at those. So having an external force, whether it's a leader or a compensation system, forces you to do something you wouldn't ordinarily do, the mundane things that make you a better person, a better leader, or a better basketball player. Coach Knight was good at it.
There was no question that his approach to teaching defensive positioning drills was probably more effective than if Coach K had come in for half a day and tried to inspire us to keep our butts down and our palms out."
The right leadership style depends, in great part, on the situation, according to the professor. It's the leaders job to know "who needs more structure, or less structure, or more love, more challenge, or more support." Leaders must "accurately read relevant situational demands... then appropriately adapt" how they lead.