Leadership Thoughts from Late Great Detroit Pistons


NBA, Olympic coach Chuck Daly dies at 78

I grew up outside of Detroit during the Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys” era so I spent a lot of time watching Chuck Daly, who just passed away yesterday.

Daly had a reputation for being a coach and leader who could get strong personalities to get along for a common goal — sounds like the traits you'd want in a real leader in any type of organization. For those who are primarily baseball fans, he was like a Joe Torre type, as Daly got the superstars of the 1992 “Dream Team” to work together to win an Olympic men's basketball gold medal. He also got strong personalities like Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman to work together for two consecutive NBA titles.

One quote from the Chuck Daly tribute pieces stood out at me and is worth highlighting:

“It's a players' league. They allow you to coach them or they don't,” Daly once said. “Once they stop allowing you to coach, you're on your way out.”

Isn't that always true — the followers choose their leader, or at least they choose to be led. You might be “the boss”, a title bestowed upon you, without being the real leader of the organization. Sometimes the leader isn't the boss (let's say Isiah Thomas as a player) and sometimes the boss isn't a leader (look at Thomas after retirement as a coach and executive).

Think of your organization — if you're a boss, do your people choose to let you lead? Or do they just tolerate and placate you? If you're not a boss, do you let your boss lead? Why or why not?

I'm currently reading the book The TWI Workbook: Essential Skills for Supervisors (with CD) and there's a discussion of leadership in the section on “Job Relations” training for supervisors (page 131). It says:

“The essence of leadership is to work with people in a way that gets them to take charge or ownership of the requirements of the work. Defined this way, a leader is a person who has followers, not simply a “boss” who issues orders about what to do, by when, and how.”

Good leadership is good leadership, regardless of whether it comes from the sports world or industry.

The news about Daly, reminded me of a story my dad had sent about the recently-passed owner of the Pistons, Bill Davidson (who owned the team from the 1970s through his death). Davidson was also chairman of Guardian Industries, a glassmaker and auto supplier.

Tackling the thorny world trade issues | Freep.com | Detroit Free Press

Bob Kennedy, executive director of the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, won´t ever forget what happened when he blew one of his budgeted revenue goals by a whopping amount, like 50%, a few years ago.

The late Bill Davidson, the Detroit Pistons owner who had founded the institute with a $30-million pledge in 1992 – and could be gruff as well as charitable – shocked Kenndy with his reaction to the budget miss. “I like the fact that you missed,” Kennedy recalls Davidson saying. “If you give me a bunch of numbers that you always make, I might feel like you're sandbagging me.”

Davidson, who died last month, wanted his news straight up. He was a cleareyed realist who saw the world as it was and acted accordingly.”

It seems that Dr. Deming might have appreciated that… missing “the numbers” was something to be honest about (and then fix) rather than something to lie about and cover up (which only leads to bigger problems down the road).


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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I agree completely. Bill Davidson and Chuck Daly were both great leaders in every sense of the word. My greatest professional dissappointment was when I failed to get hired by Guardian! (the Piston’s were always a long shot for a 6′ power forward)


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