Coach Don Showalter’s 5 Leadership Traits That Transcend Sports

Characteristics every leader needs to possess, regardless of discipline.
Coach Show Blog Header Image

Gold Medal Coach Don Showalter’s 5 Universal Leadership Traits

When it comes to leadership advice, coach Don Showalter has a gold mine of it at his disposal. Currently with USA Basketball, Showalter previously accrued 601 wins, 16 district titles, six state tournament appearances as the head coach of various Iowa basketball teams.


He’s won nine “Coach of the Year” awards from the Iowa Basketball Coaches Association, plus another eight from USA Basketball, eight FIBA gold medals, and has helped guide dozens of players to the NBA like Scottie Barnes, Bradley Beal, Jahlil Okafor, and Jayson Tatum.


The knowledge and experience coach Showalter possess transcends sports, and can help leaders in any field. We were fortunate enough to talk with Showalter, who gave us five basic characteristics he believes every leader must have to excel in whatever they do.

1: Strong instruction and guidance

Being a good teacher involves many different things, but the way coach Showalter sees it, building up good habits in your students is the most important. “In the basketball world it’s building habits. In the performing arts world, [or] working for a company, it’s [about] building habits and, and how you do that,” says Showalter.


Coach Showalter does this with smaller, tightly-focused training sessions; instead of games of five-on-five, Showalter often runs four-on-four or even three-on-three sessions. This lets Showalter and his staff give players the attention they need, and build good habits that they can use in full scrimmages.


This also fosters a sense of accountability, as individual impact matters more at these smaller scales. Coach Showalter openly says that student leadership is probably the most important piece to his leadership philosophy and his consequential success.


Implement coach Showalter’s small group strategy into your own program and help your students fine tune the details that will ultimately help them become more complete and capable individuals.

2: Precise Organization

Showalter knows being organized is one of the more underrated aspects of leadership, and implores everyone to not neglect it. “Don’t just come and assume it’s gonna happen, [you’ve] gotta be organized. For the coach, we always think we are. Our practice plans, etc. Organization from a CEO standpoint means, you better be organizing your thoughts before you go into that meeting with your clientele.”


He continues, “You better be organized with your thoughts when you talk to that parent. You better be organized with how you’re gonna teach this piece of the play that you’re in. So organization is more than just, ‘I have it down here, what I’m gonna do,’ It’s how you do things.”


Being a leader is busy work, and sometimes things sneak up on you — it happens. But failing to prepare is preparing to fail, so plan things out as thoroughly as you can, and minimize the surprises.


If you want help with the planning process, then sign up for our newsletter: The Edge. When you subscribe, you’ll start getting real, first-hand stories and tips from expert leaders about how they’ve built successful programs in different communities, like our “10 tips to help your high school program succeed” document.

3: Humility

Coach Showalter believes that the best people are humble. Staying grounded, being willing to admit mistakes, having an openness to new ideas are all signs of humble leadership, and also indicators of success.


“The Coach Ks of the world, [the] Jay Wrights, the best high school coach is very humble,” says Showalter. “Jeff Van Gundy said it best: There are two types of people in this world, those that are humble and those that will be humbled.”


A leader that can recognize they don’t know everything will find their humility rewarded with new knowledge and creative ideas that help them and their students find success.


On the other hand, always refusing to take anyone else’s thoughts into consideration could create an unhealthy culture, and isolate yourself from the group. Avoid this outcome by practicing genuine humility in your program.

4: Adaptability

There’s no shortage of quotes and proverbs online about making plans and how quickly they all go out the window. That’s because it happens constantly. One slight alteration can quickly domino into a troublesome situation. This is why coach Showalter says, “you better be adaptable.”


This trait ties back to being organized, and humbled. Accept that things out of your control can (and will) happen, and be ready to make adjustments, no matter how much they go against your own.


Coach Showalter notes, “there’s always things that are gonna happen, that you’re gonna have to adapt to, no matter what industry you’re in, or what you coach.” Be diligent, and keep an eye out for any signs that could signal a change down the road — or get in front of them if you can.

5: Authenticity

Last on Coach Don Showalter’s list of things every leader should be is authenticity. “You gotta be who you are,” says Showalter. “What you see is what you get. They don’t wanna see somebody different than who you are. You build a lot of trust because you’re authentic.”


An authentic leader fully understands their purpose, their beliefs, and displays the courage to stick with them, even when it may cause conflict. This doesn’t mean being inflexible however. In fact, authenticity and humility can go hand-in-hand: The best leaders ask their staff and even their subordinates for their input when deciding how to best guide the program.


Next time you come up with an idea, whether it be for a specific or a more general change in how things operate, run it by your circle and get their input. This way, you get the best of both worlds while also keeping those in your organization engaged and informed.

Share this article with your network and include your most valued leadership trait. You never know what you might learn in return.