Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, Deming, and Lean Leadership


Gregg Popovich_1

Since moving to San Antonio two years ago, I've become a big fan of the San Antonio Spurs. For one, it's essentially a civic responsibility to cheer for them, with the Spurs being the only major pro team in town. They are similar to the Green Bay Packers in that regard.

Second, they are a fun team to watch. I'm not sure where the “boring” reputation comes from, unless winning 50+ games every year bores you. They aren't a high flying “Lob City” team but they play team basketball and they do it well.

Third, they play as a team. Finally, they seem like a classy bunch who are good members of the community. Oh, and they don't have a racist owner.

I'm also a big fan of the quirky head coach, Gregg Popovich (recently named coach of the year in the NBA).

My friend Chad Walters recently blogged about Pop's humble leadership style. He's not the type of corporate chieftain or hospital CEO who feels like he has all of the answers. He doesn't have to micromanage things.

“Sometimes in timeouts I'll say, ‘I've got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody's holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.'”

Pop seems like the type of leader who helps:

  • Get the right players on the team
  • Make sure the players know their roles
  • Plan, practice, and prep
  • Let the players execute and take responsibility

I had a chance to watch Coach Pop at work at a Spurs game earlier this year. He's definitely one of the more low-key and less demonstrative coaches in the game. He doesn't seem to get too high or too low and that probably serves to keep the professionals he coaches pretty calm and focused.


Wednesday night, Pop was interviewed during the game (something he famously has little patience for).

He was asked a question about Kawhi Leonard:

“How do you get Kawhi going?”

Pop said:

“I don't get him going. He's a fine young man.”

That reminds me of the leadership idea from W. Edwards Deming:

“…if management stopped demotivating their employees then they wouldn't have to worry so much about motivating them.”

Pop can't motivate Kawhi. He can only hope to not demotivate him.

As Chad Walters quoted in his post:

“I think competitive character people don't want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It's a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people.”

I think the same is true for people in hospitals, software startups, or factories. You don't have to manipulate people. Lead. Empower. Tap into their intrinsic motivation. Set direction rather than directing every detail. That's leadership.

Go Spurs Go!

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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. Great post and so very true. I’ll never understand why some managers tear down their associates on the one hand and then complain because they don’t do better. I think this comes from pride and the feeling that there is not sufficient appreciation to go around if we give some of it away to those who work for us. Yet, if we develop loyalty in our associates because we develop their skills and believe in them as people, no problem will be too big to solve and no improvement too large to implement. As I told a young man recently, lead by being a servant and as you lift up those around you, you will rise with them. In fact, they will push you up higher than you could ever go on your own.

  2. Some great quotes about Pop in this WSJ article:

    “He’s demanding but he’s fair—and this is coming from somebody who spent considerable time in his doghouse,” said Rose, who was part of Spurs title teams in 1999 and 2003. “He doesn’t put on airs. He’s not fake. He’s 100% real.”

    Rose describes a coach who remembers the names of player spouses and children and details from home. “Still, to this day, he asks how my mother is doing,” he said. “He’s very in tune to his emotional side.”

    I think Lean leaders are authentic. They’re tough, but fair.

    And Bill Clinton says:

    Gregg’s relationship to his players and his ability to get them to play as a real team are tributes to his extraordinary combination of leadership and humanity.”

  3. It all starts with recruiting “POP” definitely thinks outside the box. His team looks like an international world team. These players backgrounds are so diverse that the common language they speak is teamwork. They are one of the last successful teams that scores while the ball pass though the entire teams hands without touching the floor.

    If coaching was more like the corporate manufacturing world he would have to win a championship using one less player on roster each year! LOL

  4. Far too often what people call Leadership is not distinguished from Ruling. The difference between a
    Leader and a Ruler is a four letter word that starts with F. The four letter word is FEAR.

    If any team and coach personifies the very ESSENCE of W. Edwards Deming’s Principles, that team is the San Antonio Spurs and its OBSTREPEROUS EGALITARIAN COACH-Gregg Popovich.


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