At the age of 19, Zion Williamson was drafted number one by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 NBA Draft.  Many experts immediately compared the young star to LeBron James, who had already cemented his place in history on the Mount Rushmore of basketball, alongside Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.  Those are some big shoes to fill.

Pelican team owners likely realized they needed a new coach to mentor the rising star, as well as the many other young players on the emergent Pelican’s team.  They needed a new leader who could teach them new things, test their limits, get them out of their comfort zone, and learn every single day.  Zion, and all of the other players, many of them in their early 20’s, needed a coach who could demand respect and immediately garner trust.  In professional sports, especially basketball, trust is everything.  Players need a coach who can push them beyond their limits and help them off the floor when they inevitably hit bumps and failures along the way.

After a vigorous search, Stan Van Gundy was chosen by the Pelican’s front office.  He seemed like the perfect choice.  He had a track record of mentoring young, rising star talent and helping them reach their full leadership potential.  And his authenticity fostered trust.  Players immediately connect with Coach Van Gundy.

In our interview, he shares key insights.  “Players want to be pushed hard.  They want to test their boundaries. They want tough feedback and tough love.  That’s the only way they get better, and they know that,” according to Van Gundy.  Van Gundy also shares their values, which also fosters trust and facilitates more meaningful conversations with the players.  Shared values create deep, visceral human connections with players.

Wait, how does a middle age, privileged white guy, like Van Gundy, share the same values as predominantly African American 20-year-old athletes, many of whom grew up poor or even in broken families?

In Van Gundy’s own words, “I’m a poster boy for white privilege. I’ve led a privileged life, so I only know about these issues, and these problems, and these inequities from people I’ve been associated with, work with, know, care about. I don’t carry the issue. But just because something doesn’t happen to you, if it’s happening to people you know, if it’s happening to people you care about, you care about the issue.”

And that’s the central point.  Van Gundy is the epitome of self-awareness and authenticity.  He redefines empathy. Almost magically, he is able to put himself into the size 14 sneakers of his players.  And they respect him immensely for it.  The empathy—and the so-called ‘soft skills’—creates a connection.  This kind of a strong bond is necessary when the ‘coach’ asks his players to try something new and unproven, or to work harder, or to push their natural limits, or to bounce back from failure—a lost game, a missed shot, an injury, or the occasional harsh, but constructive criticism.

Here’s the hard algebra of soft skills.  It starts with self-awareness, then comes empathy, then comes a strong connection, and then comes trust.  Skip one step of this algebraic formula and the math doesn’t work.  Van Gundy knows this.  He’s been practicing soft skills his entire career.

Even coaches on competing teams love Van Gundy.  Former NBA Championship Coach Doc Rivers raves about Van Gundy, calling him passionate, educated, and inspiring.  Van Gundy is an effective leader because he’s a complete human being.  Rivers commented, “Van Gundy clearly explains why social justice is important. He talks a lot about this being an American problem and it doesn’t matter what color you are. Wrong is wrong and right is right. … His passion is real, it’s consistent, and it’s awesome.”

Let’s get back to Zion and the Pelicans.  They’re smack-dab in the middle of the fiercely competitive Western Conference, home of the Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets. What do the Pelicans need to do to win a championship?  According to Van Gundy, “…make fewer mistakes, defensively make fewer mistakes, foul less, break down less, offensively pass the ball better, take care of the ball better.”  That’s all?

Well, I never said he didn’t have work to do.  But he’s got Zion.  He’s got a lot of other young talent on the team.  And he’s got the mentoring, the coaching, and the soft skills needed to pull it off.  As a Pelican’s VP David Griffin recently said, “the players respect him as a man and that matters enormously.”

*This interview is presented by CEO Fellows in partnership with N2Growth- Request to join our exclusive leadership forum and have conversations with our Culture Champions, here. We invite you to share your story and get feedback from iconic leaders like Stan Van Gundy, executive advisors, top leadership professors, and gifted students from around the world.