Coach Calipari: A Winner and a Servant Leader

The world is in a desperate need of a different leadership role model. Everyone has seen the effects of self-serving leaders in every aspect of our society. What we need today are leaders who are servant leaders.

When people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are often confused. They immediately conjure up thoughts of the inmates running the prison, or trying to please everyone. Others think servant leadership is only for church leaders. The problem is that they don’t understand leadership. They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. From my experience, not only is it possible, it’s the only way over the long run to get great performance and human satisfaction. To prove my point, I’m always looking for good servant leader examples.

As an ex-basketball player and coach, I love March Madness and the NCAA basketball run. This year was especially sweet with Coach John Calipari leading his Kentucky Wildcats to the National Championship. I have known Cal since his coaching days at the University of Massachusetts. He considers me part of his “kitchen cabinet.”  What I admire most about Cal is that he is a classic servant leader. He proves season after season that you can lead and serve at the same time if you understand the three aspects of servant leadership: the servant, the steward, and the shepherd.

As a servant, Coach Cal realizes that leadership is not about him; it’s about the people he is serving. When asked how he felt about winning the championship, Cal was quick to say, “This is not about me. This is about these thirteen players. This is about the Big Blue Nation.” He always focuses on the kids and the fans who support the Wildcats.

As a steward, Coach Cal knows that he doesn’t own these kids—they are “on loan” to him to nurture, support, and help develop. Some people criticize him because a number of his players are “one and done”—they leave after their Freshman year and go straight into professional basketball. Last year, four members of his team were drafted in the first round and this year there likely will be two. He is pushing the NBA to not draft any college players until they have completed a minimum of two years of college. Whatever Coach Cal does, though, it’s all about his kids and what’s best for them and their families. If he feels a player such as Terrence Jones is not ready for the pros after one year, he encourages the player to stay—which is what Terrence did. The Terrence Jones who played in the Final Four this year was very different from the Terrence Jones who played last year. Coach Cal does whatever he can to help each player develop to his own highest level of performance.

As a shepherd, Coach Cal thinks every one of his players is important. This year’s team had six players who averaged 25 points or better in high school—in other words, they were all stars. The great gift that Coach Cal has is to get them to subvert their ego and realize that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” Different players in every game stepped up when they needed to.  Anthony Davis, who was chosen the most outstanding player in the NCAA Final Four tournament as well as being the recipient of several National Player of the Year awards, realized the importance of everyone as well. When he was interviewed after the game about what a great game he had played even though he only scored six points, he said, “Well, it’s not me. It’s these guys behind me. They led us this whole tournament. This whole game, I was struggling offensively, and I told my team, ‘Every time down, you all score the ball; I’m just going to defend and rebound.’” What a great example of everyone depending on each other.

Just think of these young people, who have learned to recognize that:

  • As servants, life is not about them but about those whom they serve;
  • As stewards, they don’t own anything—everything is on loan and they need to nurture and support what is given to them; and
  • As shepherds, every human being is important.

These are life lessons, whether they stay in college one year, two years, or four years.

As Reid Cherner recently said in USA Today, “John Calipari persuaded teenagers to put others first, play unselfishly, and believe the whole is better than the sum of its parts. Every parent of a teen has to be in slack-jawed awe of that.”

Does servant leadership work?  You bet it does—and Coach John Calipari proves it. The result is great performance along with great human satisfaction. Not a bad outcome for a servant leader.

11 thoughts on “Coach Calipari: A Winner and a Servant Leader

  1. Thanks a lot.Being a part of a whole to catch the goals which are truly defined is the best example of servant leadership.

  2. I am a servant a steward and a shepherd within the workers compensation industry. My signature is “Yours in service” for the most part others do not understand my signature, nor do I require them to, it is important that I understand it and write it often to remind myself that only in service to those who seek and to those who need and to those who ask even without truly asking the full question am I able to do anything to improve the entire workers compensation system.

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  4. Excellent article!!……This helps to balance the innuendo of the Critics who try to change historical facts and Findings to paint Coach Cal as a ‘Win at any Cost’ type of Leader who only ‘Cares about Himself and His accolades and rewards’…….Anyone who can bring a diverse group of High School Superstars together to work as One in just a few months obviously loves them like his children…and they like Most children will recognize genuine Love and care and grow Positively from it…Truth Prevails……

  5. I do not appreciate such a lampoon being written on Easter Sunday; any slimeball who is willing to continually lie and cheat–be it 2 final fours vacated for cheating, admitting students who are functionally illiterate to further his own goals while embarrassing the academic reputation of the University, and knowingly befriends the morally corrupt who aid and abet his crookedness—do not serve as examples of the Christian faith that anyone with a moral conscious subscribe to. Just because the clown wins, albeit by repeatedly cheating, does not make him a saint,

    • Alright, Herb, so through your Christian blinders you see no good in the man. I didn’t realize this was some sort of Christian litmus test. I also didn’t realize that servant leadership is the exclusive domain of the Christians. So thanks for setting me straight.

  6. I admit I do not know the man this discussion is about, so I feel a bit of an eavesdropper to a small extent.
    However I pose a question (if that is alright).
    The students who were “functionally illiterate” what (if anything) changed in their lives because they were allowed to play?
    Were there lives improved in anyway?

    The reason I ask is that when I move to Adelaide just over 20yrs back, I was asked to coach a team of social misfits and illiterate kids who even at primary school, they were headed for trouble with the law or early teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

    I coached them to play basketball, we had maths and science and english lessons on the basketball court.
    We then joined a small basketball club, the players did not have parents who wanted to know anything about their children, so it was up to me to make sure that the players had their sport uniforms, it was up to me to pay the registration.
    The first season we lost every game.
    We went on to win the next 4 seasons in a row only dropping one game because the other team forfeited.

    I still see the misfits from time to time, I get invited to their weddings, to meet their babies, I have been invited to graduation dinners.
    Of the 11 players I had under my care 100% of them have gone on to be well educated leaders in their own right.

    So again I ask what happened to the “functionally illiterate” players?

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