Letting the Team Become the Boss

The coach of the world’s best basketball team put his players in command. Can the tactic work in the workplace?

Up until the last month or so, Steve Kerr has had the insanely talented players of the Golden State Warriors basketball team operating like a well-oiled machine. But recently, his group, which normally eats rivals for lunch, was losing focus, taking things for granted, and, most rare of all, losing games.

So during a recent game, Kerr did something no coach and very few leaders anywhere do: He let the players be the boss. During each time-out, the team members drew up the plays they wanted to execute, delegated roles amongst themselves, and encouraged each other. Kerr and other coaches stood off to the side. “Empowering the players to coach the team is a tactic to achieve a higher sense of engagement and buy-in during the game,” says Andrew Montag of Korn Ferry’s Global Sports practice. “Everyone needs to be invested in the team goals and motivate each other.”

Regardless of the organization, there’s always the possibility that teams, even historically top-performing ones, can have ruts. Sometimes the leadership style that had been working for years just stops working. Kerr, who has coached the Warriors since 2014, admitted, “They’re tired of my voice; I’m tired of my voice. It’s been a long haul these last few years. I wasn’t reaching them.”

A change of pace is sometimes needed to provide developmental opportunities or the chance to build and demonstrate new skills. Mark Royal, a Korn Ferry senior principal, says the best leaders use a range of styles in situationally appropriate ways. “While being directive has its place, such as rallying the team when confronted with a crisis or deadline, leaders in high-performing teams tend to make greater use of participative styles, engaging employees in critical discussions and decisions,” Royal says.

Of course, there can be a fine line between empowering subordinates and losing control. Experts say leaders must intuitively know when it’s time to step back and create space for the team’s members to grow and when to reassert authority.

Timing plays an important factor as well. Kerr let his players be the boss during a regular season game in the middle of February, not a pressure-packed playoff game, and he ceded control for just one game. Stepping back when the team isn’t ready to step up could lead to infighting and insecurity among team members. Cede control for too long and the boss might find it difficult to reclaim authority. Mutual respect between boss and team members and among team members themselves is a necessity, experts say.

As for the game where the players became the boss, it worked out OK. Golden State won by 46 points.