Business, and Coaching, Lessons From Bruce Pearl

Isn’t Auburn University known for football? Were my eyes deceiving me when I looked at the most recent national college basketball standings? Auburn was ranked number one in the country. Number one! 

How did they go from a relatively obscure non-contender in the competitive world of college hoops, to top of the heap? One word: leadership. In the case of Auburn University’s basketball team, coach Bruce Pearl is that leader.

Athletic directors at colleges across the country fight tooth and nail for coaches like Pearl, who have the seemingly magical ability to turn an average team into a top competitor. I recently sat down with Coach Pearl and asked him to share his secrets. The following points are what I gleaned from his words of wisdom and years of experience.

Charisma is overrated. Even though Pearl has plenty of it, he points out that charisma only takes a leader so far. At the end of the day, players respond to the substance of a message, not necessarily the way it’s delivered. There are plenty of soft-spoken, but intense and effective coaches in basketball. Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University is the most winning coach in NCAA history, but he doesn’t scream and throw chairs onto the basketball court like Coach Bobby Knight famously did while coaching at Indiana University. In fact, sometimes the most successful leaders in sports and business are introverts. Think of Tim Cook at Apple or Satya Nadella at Microsoft – both would undoubtedly classify as extreme introverts on the Myers-Briggs personality scale.

Even more important than personality traits or coaching style is a leader’s substance and strategy. Can this person select the right players? Can they outthink the competition? Do they know how to create team chemistry? Or inspire a winning culture? 

Here’s how Coach Pearl does it.

Empathy and respect are essential.

A leader in any organization – from a college basketball coach to a Silicon Valley startup – needs to figure out how to inspire people towards a common vision. Accomplishing that goal requires putting yourself in the shoes of others, all of whom have different backgrounds, personalities, and perspectives. Can you think like they think? Can you feel what they’re feeling? Can you custom-tailor your message in a way that persuades without being heavy handed or annoying?

Coach Pearl encourages his players to respect – even appreciate – the diverse perspectives of their fellow teammates. Pearl himself is Jewish but is an avid student of the Bible, so that he might better understand and appreciate a belief system that differs from his own. On Pearl’s team it’s fine for players to challenge one another and disagree, but they have to remain considerate of each others’ points of view. Ultimately, they must come together to focus on the greater goal: winning.

Listen with good intent.

People don’t always deliver their intended messages the right way (or the nicest way), but ultimately it’s the listener’s response that determines whether the message is successful. Coach Pearl understands this and tells his players, “Don’t worry how the original message was delivered. Just sit on it for a while.” A harsh response in the heat of the moment is a sure-fire way to escalate interpersonal conflict. Panic ensues. “I’m not saying back down. I’m not saying bend over. I’m not saying that being a good receiver means you’re acknowledging they’re right,” Pearl says. “But the act of being a good listener sets the stage for productive dialogue and an eventual meeting of the minds.”

Embrace your personal story, especially the suffering. 

As a Jew, Coach Pearl grew up mesmerized by books and stories describing the horror of Nazi Germany. He couldn’t wrap his mind around how an entire government could support the systemic extermination of his religion. Like so many other Jews across the country, this caused intense personal pain and confusion. But when the teenage Pearl was growing up in Boston, he chose to find similarities and common values with strangers he met, rather than getting caught up on differences and weird ideologies. At a very deep level, creating common connections was a core personal value. It became Pearl’s North Star. Even when people were arguing around him, he would look for common ground. Time and again, this leadership “soft skill” has proven invaluable when resolving conflict and creating team chemistry. 

Character is more important than talent.

“If we recruit a team full of knuckleheads we are going to play like knuckleheads,” Pearl opined. Most coaches and recruiters salivate when they see a high school star scoring effortlessly over opponents, even if they have a “selfish” reputation. Pearl, however, won’t waste his time with big egos. He won’t recruit a player – despite their natural gifts and talents – unless they are willing to make sacrifices, every day during practice, for the good of the team. Pearl must be convinced during personal interviews, referencing, and the overall recruiting process, that the individual recognizes he will benefit far more if the team wins, even if that means he scores less points himself. Most players (and especially their parents) quickly buy into this philosophy. Those who don’t won’t make the cut for Pearl, as they wouldn’t be a good culture fit on Auburn’s basketball team.

Even stars crave structure and discipline.

Consistently, Pearl sees the most gifted young players are the ones who want to continuously test and grow their capabilities. They out-work the competition. They try new things. They appreciate coaches and mentors who force them far outside their comfort zone. They are not deterred by facing adversity or by the occasional failure. Coach Pearl shared a favorite quote: “You can coach your players just as hard as you love them. Resilience is both revealed – and developed – during adversity.” 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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