Course: Leadership and High-performance Teams
Movie: Coach Carter (2005)
Author: Ritesh Mudhalwadkar
purpose of this essay is to relate the concepts learned in the course with the
movie and provide a clear view on the leadership and high-performance team. It
highlights on topics like team importance and dynamics, leadership style and
action logic, mindset of leader and followers.
Approach: The essay tries to explain the concepts by
selecting key scenes from the movie in sequential manner, summarizing the
scenes and then reflecting on it with the help of course literature and
Summary of the
Coach Carter is an American drama film released in
2005. It is based on a true story of Ken Carter, who takes the job of
basketball coach of Richmond High School and becomes famous in 1999 for
benching his undefeated team due to poor academic performance. He realizes that
the team members had poor attitude, disrespect for teammates and poor
basketball technique and endurance. Therefore, he decides to impose an
obligatory contract on players which demanded good academic performance, a
dress code, respectful behavior and strict commitment towards play. After some
initial resistance from players, the team starts to build up and becomes
undefeated in the new season. However, due to ignorance by players towards
academic grades, the coach decides to lock the gym. He also cancels matches
until the team shows considerable improvement in the academic performance
further outraging the players, school management and the community. Coach Carter
takes a stand for his decisions and convinces the players to endure a vision
for future and have a balance in life. He also engages with the school
management and the community to inspire a change in the education system. The
team becomes a high-performing team by showing equal commitment towards
academics and basketball. Coach at the end finds that he has completely
transformed the mindset of the team and congratulates everyone for the team
The movie begins with a basketball game between
Richmond High School and St. Francis High School. Richmond Oilers perform
considerably poor and portray a poor sportsmanship. Ken Carter is offered a job as Head Coach of
the Richmond High School basketball team, the school he himself played for and
achieved great success. Even though the job provided him with low stipend, he
decides to accept it. Before officially accepting the offer, he watches the
team play against St. Francis High School. Soon he recognizes that the team
lacks discipline and respect for fellow teammates.
One effective quality of a leader is that he
understands the strengths and the weaknesses of his team. He gauges the team
based on its composition and dynamics. Such analysis is critical while building
a team because team members often fail to realize their role within the team.
This restrict teams, even with good performers and a good leader, from becoming
a high-performance team.
Scene 1: Coach Carter meets the players (9 m)
The new coach Ken Carter arrives in the gym along with
the former coach and immediately faces ignorance and lack of respect from the
team. The former coach had failed in managing the team due lack of authority
and discipline in the players. Coach Carter asks the players to respect the
fellow teammates by referring them ‘sir’ and do the same with him. He then
establishes ground rules in the team and players are asked to sign a mandatory
contract agreeing to terms like maintaining a 2.3 grade point average, wearing
tie on game days, attending all lectures, etc.
Autocratic leadership was adopted by the coach. There
was no involvement of players while devising rules or the contract which they
had to follow. Such leadership style was necessary as players were not well
educated, not disciplined and were not responding to former coach’s orders. The
Coach’s power was challenged by players like Timo Cruz, which is often observed
in such team environment. These are the silent leaders who often resist the
change, rejects authority by others and try to take control of the team.
Two best scorers from the last season left the team
and the coach makes it clear that he cares about the team performance and not
individuals. The fundamental principal he teaches to players is that team is
always superior to an individual. Basketball legend Michael Jordon quoted, “Talent
wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships”. Reid Hoffman,
Cofounder of LinkedIn states, “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy,
if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team”. 5
This way Coach Carter started the task of turning a
group of individuals into high performing teams. The first stage of the team
development was forming, in which after the initial resistance players were
trying to figure out coach’s way of working. This stage also saw some
characteristic of storming phase, where players challenged Coach’s authority
over the group. Silent leaders like Jaron Wills (Worms) and Jason Lyle were
impatient and skeptical about new rules and were struggling along with others
to understand its relevance to them.
Scene 2: Resistance from parents (20 m)
The coach decides to involve parents in his decisions
for the students. He asks them to sign the contract agreeing to the terms and
his way of operation. Most of the parents challenge his methods as they disagreed
importance of maintaining a 2.3 grade point average in player’s academic life.
Parents argued that ‘basket is life for their kids’. Coach wants to target this
mindset of parents and asks them to have a vision of college education for
Mindset is the way you are programmed to think, to
give meaning, and therefore also to act. It relates to structure and culture.
In general terms, it is the characteristic of mental attitude that determines
how you will interpret or respond to situations. 1 As the African
community in Richmond was reluctant towards education, they had a mindset that
education is secondary. The Coach therefore adopts an action mindset here, by
engaging the parents to nurture a change within the community. He tries to convince
them to maintain a direction, a vision for their children. He reminds everyone
that playing basketball at high school may not guarantee players social success
in their life, but along with academic excellence, basketball can help students
to get into college. And which is why players are called ‘student’ athletes.
Action mindset by the coach tries to achieve a
combination of both strategy; namely academic excellence and wining basket ball
thus maintaining a balance in student’s life. He understands what things should
be preserved and what should be changed.
Scene 3: Damien Carter enters the gym (25 m)
Damien Carter, coach’s son, arrives few minutes late
in the gym on his first day. He received the same treatment by the coach as his
fellow teammates would have and is asked to perform pushups and suicides. This
was a right approach by the coach by judging every player on similar grounds without
any favorable treatment.
A leader is respected within the team if he treats
everyone equally and fairly. Treating his son like all other players was
important leadership quality.
Scene 4: Timo Cruz returns to the gym (33 m)
Cruz returns to the gym and expresses a desire to play
for the team again. Keeping his behavior in mind, instead of directly refusing
him, the coach asks him to complete a huge series of pushups and suicides. He
also puts a time constraint on the task, which makes it impossible to complete.
This is an important characteristic of an
authoritarian leader, where the coach teaches Cruz and other team members that
every act has consequences. The consequence can be a reward or punishment and
every team player must manage the consequences of his actions.
Meanwhile, as Cruz finishes his time frame for the
task, the coach congratulates him for the effort. He realizes that Cruz is
short of the objective and therefore refuses him to integrate in the team. The
coach may have faced a dilemma whether to reward Cruz for his exceptional
effort or to be fair and stick to the objectives. Later, the team players express a desire to
complete the remaining task for Cruz thus fulfilling the objective and
accepting Timo Cruz in the team.
Due to this act, the coach had significant
achievements as a leader. Firstly, he was successful in establishing discipline
and his authority as a leader. Secondly, he managed to turn a group of
individuals into responsible team. Jason Lyle’s dialogue from this scene is
evident of the team bonding,
“We are a team.
One person struggle, we all struggle. One person triumph, we all triumph”
This stage is referred to as norming. In this phase
teams starts to work together and understand the strength and importance of a
team. However, this is an unstable stage as team might go to the storming phase
if any issue crops up. As the team matures they start valuing other’s opinion,
manage conflict effectively and give respect to fellow teammates. Also, the
team is now able to express open criticism and thus tries to strive forward
with a common objective.
Scene 5: Junior Battle quits (52 m)
Coach Carter realizes that team players are not
obeying their contract by attending all lectures. He confronts the team about
this issue and once again reminds them to about the vision for the future
college education. Junior battle is asked about his absenteeism in the class to
which he had no concrete excuse. Therefore, coach suspends him from the team.
Resisting to coach’s decision he quits and disrespects the team and the coach.
An important characteristic of a leader is assessment
of the team’s commitment on regular basis. This way he can exercise situational
leadership more effectively. Such leadership effectively considers
the maturity and competence of the team member which is often overlooked. Every
individual has different skillset and it is not adequate to perform all task
even with a good leader. In this situation, the team was doing good in matches
but ignoring academics. Therefore, the coach again exercises his authority to
maintain direction and to stick with the objectives.
the other hand, Coach is constantly trying to help students to have a
futuristic vision towards which players are ignorant. Good leaders often try to
think what is good for team’s development and success, even if followers find
it irrelevant. As Steve Jobs rightly said in an interview to Business Week in
1997, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to
Scene 6: Gym lockout (1h 22 m)
After receiving the academic results of all players,
coach decides to lock the gym. This comes after the team have successful won
the Baywatch High School Championship. He summons the players in library and
confronts them with their low academic results. He again offers players a way
out if they prove commitment towards academics.
This kind of leadership is different from autocratic
style. It is coercive style of leadership. The coach takes most radical
decisions by locking the gym as he had no option. A good leader uses the
coercive power only as a last resort because it may increase the resistance by
peers and can ultimately undermine the leader. The leader who can pull coercive
style of leadership effectively when required has a unique “action logic” – the
Individualist. Action logic it the way leaders interpret the surrounding and
react when their power or safety is challenged. 1 Leaders with the
Individualist action logic are aware of the possible conflicts, however sees
that as an opportunity to change or succeed. This encourages them to use their
coercive power when necessary which sometimes leads to misunderstandings with
top management or even subordinates.
This use of coercive power by coach Carter attracted a
lot of resistance from parents, community and school management. Coach was now
in a middle management role wherein he is answerable to school management (top)
and players and parent (bottom). As it important for the middle management to
maintain their independence to avoid tearing situation, the coach initially
answered all queries and stayed firm on his stand for lockout.
Scene 7: Team meeting in library (1h 27m)
As the lockout was becoming more and more serious with
media attention and involvement of the council, the coach took time out to have
an open discussion with the team. This was done so that players could discuss
their grievances and debate on the necessity of the lockout. The coach honestly
puts his views in front all players and promises them that he will try his best
to get every player into the college if they show commitment.
This stage is referred to as storming. During this
phase of team development people disagree and sometimes blame the leader for
devising a false strategy. The leader’s wisdom is questioned, and team may
become defensive and hesitant to take the next step. Silent leaders clash with
the team and the leader creating instability and chaos. At this stage leader
must practice active listening, inquire and understand the differences and
provide an open platform for discussion. The communication within the team is vital
for the success, and moreover, team members must understand and embrace the
change they are going through, which could be possible through honest and open
Scene 8: Council meeting to end lockout (1h 39m)
The council meeting was arranged to understand the
reasons behind a radical decision from the coach to lock the gym. Coach Carter
puts forwards his views on the issue and stresses on the idea of bringing about
a change in the society. Council also asks parents views before taking a vote.
The decision was made against the lockout and coach decides to resign.
An important characteristic of a leader is to
negotiate his stand to top management and still maintain individuality in his
decisions. Here, coach also tries to create a sense of responsibility within
the top management and the community. He gives them example of team players who
failed to obey simple rules of a contract and warned everyone that these
players may soon consider themselves above law.
Scene 9: The Performing Stage (1h 44m)
Coach Carter wanted the team to perform good at two
fronts; academics and basketball court. Unless they were not committed to
academics, wining basketball matches will not make them a high performing team.
After the Council’s decision to end the lockout, players decided to respect the
decision of coach and committed themselves to academics.
Moreover, they also performed good on the court wining
an entry into state championship tournament. At this stage team transforms into
a high performing team. It is mature enough to handle new challenges and
accomplish them with team performance and not by relying on individuals. This
is the level where leadership style can be shifted to delegation and team
members are given freedom to make decisions. Leaders give minimal direction to
team however, team is held responsible for its actions.
As the team is matured from norming, at performing
stage team very rarely falls back to storming. Many teams fail to recognize the
importance of the stages of development and often try to jump on performing
stage at the beginning. If the team is amateur, it is likely to fail in
storming phase as this stage is most difficult of all.
A leader is responsible to help the team to progress
through these stages of development. More importantly he must assess the
competence and behaviors of the team members and then decide the type of
support he needs to provide. This practice is called Situational Leadership.
Scene 10: The last game (2h 8m)
The team played for the first time in state
championship tournament, which was an achievement for a young team. Team performed
at their maximum potential and coach congratulates them for their effort. He
does not forget to mention the progress made by the team academically and
during the basket trainings. He also thanks them for the respect he received
from the players.
This is the last stage in team development, named as
adjourning. During this stage the team simply reflects on its performance and
takes away lessons learned in the process. This stage is important to help the
team move forward with the results; win or failure both must end somewhere to
give a new start. With this last briefing, there is bittersweet ending to the
goal or project.
Coach Carter was a movie about how a leader can inspire
a change within his team and the community. It may be necessary to challenge
the status quo in some situations and therefore teams shouldn’t be afraid of
change initiatives. Coach Carter teaches the players the importance of
discipline and vision. Building a high-performance team requires patience and
persistence. The leader must create an environment where team could excel and
adapt to changes gradually.
Coach Carter has successfully practiced Situational
Leadership to deal with un-educated and arrogant team members. A combination of
authoritarian, coercive and delegating leadership style was necessary to induce
discipline in the team. Also, utilization of Individualistic action logic was
key to the success, as the current education system was unable to motivate the
students to progress and inculcate a futuristic vision in their lives. This
movie teaches some important characteristic of leadership and high-performance teams
which could be summarized as follows;
individuals and leader must focus on working as team and not as a group. Teams
understand their goals and have a sense of cohesion.
responsible for creating a clear vision for the team.
team is matured from stages of development like forming, storming, norming and performing.
Such teams are characterized by active listening skills, open advocacy, mutual
trust, cohesion and good leadership.
or approach depends on the mindset of teams and the leader. It is also highly
influenced by culture, personality, structure and systems.
(n.d.). Leadership and High-Performance Teams. Course Literature.
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Torbert, W. R. (2005). 7 Transformations of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 67-76
Gosling, J., &
Mintzberg, H. (2003). The Five Minds of a Manager. Harvard Business Review, 1-9.
Wing, L. S.
(2005). Leadership in High-performance Teams: a model for superior team
performance. Team Performance Management,
Keller, S., &
Meaney, M. (2017, June). High-performing teams: A timeless leadership topic.
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