Steve Kerr’s Incredible EQ

It hasn’t taken long for Steve Kerr’s success as a basketball coach to catch up to his success as a player. While Kerr the player was never a superstar, he certainly played alongside them—most notably with Michael Jordan while with the Chicago Bulls. Kerr won three championships with the Bulls and two more with the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, Kerr is the only NBA player after 1969 to win four straight NBA titles—after his three-peat with Jordan and the Bulls, Jordan retired (for the second to last time) and Kerr was traded to the Spurs, where they immediately won the championship his first year with the team.

Kerr’s specialty was shooting, and he still has the highest career three-point field goal percentage (45.4%) in NBA history for any player with at least 250 three-pointers made. And until Kyle Korver broke his record in 2010, he also held the NBA record for the highest three-point percentage in a season at 52.4%. Kerr was by no means a prolific scorer—he averaged 6.0 points per game over his 910-game career—but when he did shoot, he made them count, including hitting a title-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz.

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Kerr was known for being mild-mannered and low-key during his playing career. He was never flashy, never overly aggressive, and always acted as though each game was just another day at the office for him. And these traits have carried over to his coaching career.

Kerr has been the Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors since 2014, when he signed a five year deal worth $25 million.

To say Kerr found immediate success as a professional basketball coach would be an understatement. In his very first season, the Warriors got out to a 19-2 start, and in this period they won an almost unheard of 14 games in a row. Up to the All-Star break, the Warriors had the best record in the Western Conference, and Kerr was subsequently named the conference’s head coach for the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. Kerr was runner-up in voting for NBA Coach of the Year that season, and the Warriors went on to win the championship.

Since winning the championship in his very first year, Kerr has gone on to add three more rings, including one just last season.

While many coaches are known for ranting and raving on the sidelines—at their players, at their assistants, at the refs, even at the fans—this has never been Kerr’s modus operandi. He is known for being calm and collected—although perhaps not all the times, as everyone can get heated now and then. After all, Kerr is regularly under the pressure of coaching a team of millionaire star players (many of whom have big egos) in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, while entire playoff series and the team’s season are on the line. Despite this stress, however, Kerr tends to remain even tempered, because he believes that is the best way to get the most out of his players.

Clearly, he’s onto something. In his eight years as a head coach, his teams have won the championship four times. Only the legendary Phil Jackson has a better record when it comes to winning championships, having won 11 times in his 20 seasons (6 with Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and 5 with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers). Even Red Auerbach, who many still regard as the greatest NBA coach of all time, won 9 rings in his 20 seasons with the Boston Celtics.

So what’s Kerr’s secret? How has he been able to get so much out of his players?

Of course, Kerr would not have won any championships without some great players to coach—no coach can. Phil Jackson had two of the greatest ever (Jordan and Bryant), not to mention Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal. Auerbach had greats of his own, perhaps most notably Bill Russell.

But just because a coach has great players doesn’t mean they’re bound to win championships. After all, there are plenty of all-time great players who have never won championships (e.g., Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and Patrick Ewing), and not for a lack of trying.

Coaches need to be able to get the most out of their superstars, while building a supporting cast of role players around them who are willing to check their egos at the door, get the ball less, and receive less credit than they would leading other teams, all in the service of winning a title.

Unfortunately for players like Barkley, Malone, and Ewing, and current championship-less superstars like Russell Westbrook and James Harden, their coaches were never able to do this for them.

Kerr’s secret, it seems, is his incredible emotional intelligence, which Inc. defines as “a person's ability to recognize and understand emotions (both his or her own and those of others), and use that information to guide decision making.” Inc. goes on to say that, “Empathy and compassion are qualities typically associated with a high emotional intelligence quotient (EQ).”

Listen to any interview that Kerr gives and you will see his empathy and compassion on full display. While an uber successful professional basketball coach might be expected to limit himself to speaking about basketball in interviews, Kerr does the opposite; he is widely known for his passionate takes on social issues. He publicly denounced the Trump presidency for its perceived lies, ties to white supremacy, and insults against women and minorities; he has been a very vocal supporter of gun control measures—in 1984, at the age of 52 and while he was serving as president of the American University of Beirut, Kerr’s father, Malcolm Kerr, was murdered with two shots to the back of the head from suppressed handguns in the hallway outside his office by the Shia Lebanese militia known as Islamic Jihad; and he has voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement, praising peaceful protests and encouraging more people to take action to stand up to systemic racial injustice against Black people.

On May 24 of this year, 19 children and two teachers were murdered by an 18-year-old gunman using a semi-automatic rifle at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Later that same day, before even the full extent of the atrocity was known, Kerr was in tears at a press conference that was supposed to be about that day’s game (a pivotal Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals). Forgoing speaking about basketball entirely, he reiterated his criticisms of the government’s response to school shootings, including the maintaining of the filibuster, which he believes Republicans in the Senate are using to prevent a vote on gun control legislation:

I’m not going to talk about basketball. Nothing’s happened with our team within the last six hours, we’re going to start the same way tonight, any basketball questions don’t matter. Since we left shootaround, 14 children were killed 400 miles from here. And a teacher. And in the last 10 days, we’ve had elderly black people killed in a supermarket in Buffalo. We’ve had Asian churchgoers killed in southern California. And now we have children murdered at school. WHEN ARE WE GOING TO DO SOMETHING?

Kerr finished with a raised voice, nearly a shout, banging his hand on the table with each word. He was being incredibly genuine in the moment, and it demonstrates just how high his innate emotional intelligence is. He inherently knows when to be cool, calm, and collected, and he knows when to put his passion on display—when to raise his voice, when to emphasize his words with visible displays of emotion like banging the table.

Despite the uncharacteristic show of anger, Kerr always remained in control. He did not berate or direct his anger toward anyone present, which can be extraordinarily destructive to relationships. Rather, he focused on actions:

There are 50 senators right now who refuse to vote on H.R. 8, which is a background check rule that the House passed a couple years ago. It’s been sitting there for two years. And there’s a reason they won’t vote on it: to hold onto power. So I ask you, Mitch McConnell, I ask all of you senators who refuse to do anything about the violence and school shootings and supermarket shootings, I ask you, are you going to put your own desire for power ahead of the lives of our children, and our elderly, and our churchgoers? Because that’s what it looks like . . . I want every person here, every person listening to this, to think about your own child or grandchild, or mother or father or sister or brother, how would you feel if this happened to you today? We can’t get numb to this. We can’t sit here,” he said, banging his fist on the table again, “and just read about it and go ‘well, let’s have a moment of silence.’” . . . Do you realize that 90% of Americans, regardless of political party, want universal background checks? 90% of us. We are being held hostage by 50 senators in Washington who refuse to even put it to a vote, despite what we, the American people, want. They won’t vote on it because they want to hold onto their own power. IT'S PATHETIC! I’VE HAD ENOUGH!

One could perform a case study on this single three-minute interview, a masterclass on emotional intelligence. In it, Kerr demonstrates all of the reasons why he has been such a successful leader:

1. He is passionate: The things Kerr cares about, he cares about deeply, and he’s not afraid to show it. People want to follow someone who truly cares about their mission, not a half-hearted person who is in it for the wrong reasons. You don’t have to be angry to show passion (in fact, it should be used sparingly), or overly emotional. But you do need to show interest and enthusiasm; others need to be able to see how much you care.

2. He is knowledgeable: Kerr knows the facts. He knows there is a bill ready for the Senate to vote on, and he knows they are refusing to do so. He knows that a high percentage of the U.S. population is in favor of background checks.

3. He is compassionate: Kerr cares immensely about others—even if he doesn’t know them personally. Being passionate may inspire others to believe in your VISION, but being compassionate will inspire others to believe in YOU.

4. He is motivated: Kerr knows what he wants, what he wants others to do, and he demands that it gets done—but he doesn’t degrade or belittle anyone in the process.

5. He gives people a “why”: Kerr does not just demand action from others; he tells them why they should do it, why it is the right thing to do, why it is beneficial to them and to others.

6. He gives people a “how”: Kerr knows that someone is much more likely to do something if they know the steps they must take to get it done. Telling someone to do something they’ve never done and expecting it to get done the way you want it to is a recipe for disaster. Show them the process, or at least the first step, and they are much more likely to do it—and do it well.

Whether all of Kerr’s emotional intelligence comes naturally, or whether it has been supplemented with deliberate study (perhaps through reading some of the many books on leadership and emotional intelligence), there is no denying that he is an expert. He’s been successful as a coach since the very beginning, and this year he proved it hasn’t been a fluke. After reaching their fifth straight NBA finals in 2019, the Warriors lost two of their best players—Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson—to injury for the entire 2019-20 season and finished with the worst record in the league. Just two years later, however, they had bounced back, and Kerr led them to their fourth Championship just last month over the Celtics.