Congratulations to Gregg Popovich, Winningest NBA Coach and a Great Leader


When I lived in San Antonio (2012 to 2015), I became a huge fan of the San Antonio Spurs. I mean, it's a civic obligation there, but I really did fall in love with the team (and they won their fifth NBA championship while I lived there).

Beyond the players and the teamwork, head coach Gregg Popovich has always been a delight to observe. For one, he loves and appreciates wine, so we have that in common.

He really seems like a great leader, end of story. And I'm not just basing that on the results. I think his process and approach for getting there is noteworthy.

Friday night, he became the all-time winningest coach in NBA history (in terms of regular season wins), with 1,136.

Here is a photo that I took in Dallas a few years ago, with Coach Pop and the legendary Manu Gnobilii:

I recently saw this article about Coach Pop:


Yes, there's some wine talk — he does seem very obsessed with detail. As you see in this story about one of his famous dinners:

“… Popovich shows up at restaurants hours before his guests, especially when he's trying out a new one. He's excited. He wants to meet the manager and the staff. He wants to taste the food and the wine. He wants to make sure everything is perfect when everyone else arrives.

“By the time we show up at 7, and the food is laid out, and the Pinot Grigio is chilled to the temperature he likes it, everything is ready for us, which makes the evening that much more special,” Pierce said. “Anytime you hear about or read about or see Pop left an enormous tip at X restaurant, it's because he spent six hours there.”

Like any good coach, he's focused on the people and he takes care of them.

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Here's the quote I love the most about his leadership style:

“After one encounter, you're just blown away that he's not an asshole,” Pierce said. “He's not a micromanager. He's not the fearless leader. He's inviting. He's humble. He's appreciative. He's somewhat reserved and shy at times.”

Let's recap:

Not an asshole. He doesn't violate the “No Asshole Rule” and probably doesn't tolerate assholes on his staff or on his team.

Not a micromanager. Even with our attention to detail in the Lean world, and time spent in the “gemba” (the place where the work is actually done, that doesn't mean we're micromanaging.

Not the fearless leader. This is more open to interpretation, but I read this to mean he's not always convinced that he's right or that he has to be always right.

He's inviting. That's another great trait for a Lean leader to have — inviting feedback, inviting suggestions, inviting participation).

He's humble. Toyota people talk about the need to lead with humility.

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More evidence of that humility is that Pop doesn't like to be celebrated. He doesn't make it about him.

Gregg Popovich Says He'll Make Spurs Players Run Before A Game For Celebrating His Record-Setting Win

“… anyone who has ever seen Gregg Popovich talk about himself for more than a half second knows that he hates being celebrated.”

He's appreciative. Yes, Lean practitioners are focused on reducing waste and striving for perfection, but we have to stop and celebrate when things go well and when we make progress toward our goals)

He's somewhat reserved and shy at times. This goes to show that the stereotype of the extroverted leader is not the only way to be successful.

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He's demanding but loving:

Which begs the question: Why does this man inspire everyone so much? Why do players and coaches want to win for him? When I asked Pierce, he answered my question with one of his own.

“How is someone able to be so demanding yet so loving?” Pierce said.

When we talk about “respect for people” or “respect for humanity,” that doesn't mean being soft or easy on people. Toyota talks about humility and they also talk about “challenge” as a core mindset and value (see chapter 1 of the great book Toyota by Toyota for more on this dynamic).

He's a teacher:

“In Vegas, there was a time when KD [Kevin Durant] reached out and asked if [Pop] could educate him about wine,” Pierce recalled.

Pop just jumped at the opportunity to take him out to dinner and have a bottle and really talk about the different wines and what's important to him. But really, it was an opportunity to spend time together.”

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He's not into egos: A sense of humor is a sign of intelligence (and humility) to him.

“Everybody talks about not having an ego — and that's a way to check. If people can't laugh at themselves, they don't have that self-deprecation that he has, that Tim [Duncan] has and Manu [Ginobili] and everybody [has]. Red flags go up.”

He can laugh at himself:

Popovich was recently asked by a reporter about his keys to success. His response: “Draft Tim Duncan. After that, stay alive.”

He develops people: Coach Pop has mentored and developed many coaches who have gone on to be head coaches themselves, including Becky Hammon, who he hired as the first full-time female assistant coach in league history. She's now a head coach in the WNBA, but it was long rumored that she would someday be a head coach in the NBA, if not replacing Pop with the Spurs, then with someone else.

He's principled: There's a story in the article about an assistant coach who stormed out of a car when the hired driver made inappropriate comments. Coach Pop was behind in a limousine and, since there wasn't room in the limo for Coach Williams:

 So he asked everyone to get out of the car so that Williams wouldn't walk alone. 

He made everybody get out of the car service and walk with me,” Williams said with a chuckle. “He knew me well enough to know if I was that upset, something must have been wrong.”

What stood out to Williams most was that there were no questions asked. Popovich just had his back. There was unconditional support.

Even with the Toyota plant in San Antonio, I can't say that Coach Popovich has ever been exposed to “Lean thinking” or “Lean leadership.” But, I'm guessing he would find it very intuitive and, if he were running a traditional non-sports business, I bet he'd be more like a Lean leader than not.

Again, congrats to Coach Popovich. We'd all be lucky to have somebody like that in our lives.

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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.


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