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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich demonstrates the difference between leading and managing

Gregg Popovich is unafraid to take on Donald Trump
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Gregg Popovich: Not defensive.
  • Oliver Staley
By Oliver Staley

Business & culture editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For most sports coaches, anything that happens off the field or court is a distraction. They’ll go to great lengths to avoid commenting on anything controversial, and they’re loathe for their athletes to be pulled into politics.

Not so Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, who has been loudly and vigorously calling out US president Donald Trump for months now. Yesterday he called a reporter at The Nation, the progressive weekly, to excoriate Trump for claiming that other US presidents didn’t call the families of service members killed in action. “This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others,” Popovich said.

Needless to say, those view aren’t universally held deep in the heart of Texas, where Popovich plies his trade. But if there’s any professional coach in position to take an unpopular stand, it’s Popovich. He’s a five-time NBA champion with the longest tenure of any coach. He’s also an Air Force veteran.

Using his secure platform to speak out makes Popovich a classic example of a principled leader who rises above the more mundane tasks of managing. As John Kotter, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, explained years ago in the Harvard Business Review, managing is about planning, organizing, and problem solving. Leadership is about motivating, energizing, and inspiring.

In Popovich’s case, his outspokenness has little to do with the goals of his organization, which is winning games, selling tickets, and making money. In many ways, it will only make his life more difficult by angering season-ticket holders, sponsors, and even his team owners. But his fearlessness also sets an example for his players, many of whom doubtlessly share his views, and sends a powerful signal that’s he’s willing to sacrifice for the greater good. In a sport where athletes are often asked to surrender individual glory for the sake of the team, that’s no small thing.

Running a company is a mixture of leading and managing, with some CEOs tilting more toward one style or the other. But in a study of how 1,000 CEOs spend their day, a team of researchers discovered that companies where the CEO spends more time leading outperform companies run by managers. That makes sense: planning and organizing can always be delegated, but true leadership should come from the top.

There’s no evidence that Popovich’s denunciations of  Trump are calculated, and anything other than the heartfelt views of a man who knows his voice carries weight. But we shouldn’t be too surprised if the Spurs dig a little deeper and play a little harder this season for a coach who’s willing to take an unpopular stand.

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