Coach’s Corner: Finding true leaders beyond the spotlight

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Coach Lee Crisp
Coach Lee Crisp

At the end of every football season, as we work to transition into off-season preparation, there is a great opportunity for us to reflect on the previous season and self-evaluate.  I was taught the importance of this by one of my mentors, Jimmy Burkholder, who told me, “You can never stay the same, you’re either getting better, or you’re getting worse.”  I took this to mean that as coaches, and human beings in general, we should always strive to improve, and not be satisfied with where we are in our development, and I believe he is right.  Along with my own reflection and self-evaluation, I usually try to find something that I can read that might offer some insight into how to become a better coach and man.  This year I picked up a book that was referenced in the foreword of Tony Dungy’s book The Mentor Leader, which in itself is another great read for coaches.  The book referenced was Jim Collins’ Good to Great.

Good to Great is not, by design, a book that is geared toward coaching.  In fact, the book is a research study on companies that have gone from being good to being great, and were able to sustain their greatness for at least 15 years after the transition relative to the market performance and comparison companies.  I have to admit that I was skeptical about spending money on something that might not even apply to my line of work, but the fact that it had been referenced in The Mentor Leader made me think that it must be worth a look.  What really caught my eye was that the reference had to do with leadership, and what Collins and his research team referred to as a Level 5 leader.  According to Jim Caldwell, in the foreword to The Mentor Leader, Tony Dungy was a perfect example of a Level 5 leader.

According to Collins, a level 5 leader: embodies a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will, displays a compelling modesty, is self-effacing, and understated, attributes success to factors other than themselves, displays a workman-like diligence – more plow horse than show horse, and they set up their successors for even greater success.  When I read these characteristics, I was struck by how different they were from the things we celebrate in our society.  We can’t deny that we are more drawn to the “look at me” type people, the ones who claim to have all the answers, or display charisma and bravado, those who bask in the glow of the lime-light.  According to Collins’ research, the people we are most drawn to aren’t the Level 5 leaders, but the charismatic and ambitious Level 4 leaders.  The big distinction between the two being that a Level 5 leader is more concerned with the enduring success of the organization they are a part of, while a Level 4 leader is more concerned with their own success, and once they are no longer a part of the organization, it fails to remain great.

In Good to Great, Collins identifies several different people that had the qualities of Level 5 leaders, and coincidentally (or not) were all CEO’s of companies that had gone from good to great.  One of these men in particular caught my attention.  Darwin Smith was the in-house lawyer at Kimberly-Clark before becoming CEO in 1971.  Before his appointment, Kimberly-Clark was lagging well behind the general market and had been for some time.  When he was appointed, he wasn’t sure the board had made the right choice, and after his appointment he was reminded by one of the directors that he lacked the qualifications for the position.  According to Collins, Darwin Smith took a struggling paper company and transformed it into a company that outperformed household names such as Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, 3M, and General Electric in his time as CEO.  Yet, despite his success, his name is still relatively obscure, even among students of corporate history and management.

Darwin Smith doesn’t fit the mold of what America sees as a great leader.  He was a man that enjoyed puttering around his Wisconsin farm over rubbing elbows with the social elite.  He described his management style as eccentric, which is fitting considering our misconceptions on what effective leadership should look like.  His background played a large role in his leadership style.  He grew up a poor Indiana farm boy, and worked a full time day job to put himself through college at Indiana University, where he took night classes.  He later earned admission to Harvard Law School.  After his appointment as CEO of Kimberly-Clark, he was diagnosed with nose and throat cancer, yet continued to fulfill his duties as CEO while commuting to Houston from Wisconsin weekly for radiation therapy.  Smith was an individual with an amazing work-ethic, and even when he was at the top, he stayed true to his character and maintained that same workman-like approach to getting the job done.  After his retirement, when reflecting on his performance as a CEO, Smith said, “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”

Collins refers to Darwin Smith as “a classic example of what we came to call a Level 5 leader.”  Collins found that Level 5 leaders were in charge of every company that had gone from good to great during the companies’ transitions.  Like Smith, these leaders possessed qualities that set them apart from their peers at the comparison companies in Collins’ study.  Interestingly, the type of company did not matter with regards to managerial style, nor did the size or financial state the company was in when the Level 5 leaders assumed command.  Collins’ study also suggested that our conventional belief that larger-than-life, big personality heroes as the answers to struggling companies is out of place, rather, his research showed quite the opposite.

I realize that Collins’ work related strictly to corporations and management, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was a strong correlation to coaching, and leading a team.  Two of the most important traits of a Level 5 leader are humility paired with a tenacious will.  When we think of great coaches, the ones that coached beyond the game, we find both of these traits present.  They are the coaches that refuse to take the credit for a team’s success, and apportion the credit to their staff, ownership, players or luck.  On the flip-side, when their team is struggling, they are the first to shoulder the blame.  Coaches of this caliber also display a tenacious work-ethic, going beyond what is asked of them, but not for the purpose of receiving any extra recognition.  These coaches put in the extra effort because they know that it will help the team.  As coaches, we look for the same qualities in the players we want to lead our teams.  In stark contrast to these types of leaders are those that want to stand in the lime-light and take credit for the success of their team, but look to point the finger or find excuses when things get tough.

Another example of a Level 5 leader is a coach that looks to educate and empower his staff and players.  The growth and success of the entire organization are the most important concerns of a Level 5 leader, not wielding power of his subordinates, but rather, allowing them to make significant contributions toward the team’s goals.  This type of approach to leadership fosters future leaders, creates a feeling of ownership among the staff and players, and contributes to the enduring success of the team.

“In a country obsessed with winning, and a culture that loves to idolize larger-than-life superstars, it’s no wonder that we often overlook, or misinterpret, the qualities of a great leader.”

A final comparison of the concept of Level 5 leadership to coaching is that the Level 5 leaders in Collins’ study were “fanatically driven” with a workman-like approach to the task set before them.  They are driven by results, and willing to make difficult decisions to make the organization better.  They are committed to long-term success and willing to work hard to achieve it and the details are important to them.  Again, these qualities correlate directly to great coaches and athletic programs or sports organizations.  These types of coaches work to create a climate and culture that fosters the vision that they have, and over time the success comes.  John Wooden is a perfect example of this; he worked for 15 years building the UCLA program before they saw the dynastic success of the 60’s and 70’s.

In a country obsessed with winning, and a culture that loves to idolize larger-than-life superstars, it’s no wonder that we often overlook, or misinterpret, the qualities of a great leader.  As coaches and players, I think there is something to learn from Collins’ study about where we should place our values, and what qualities we should look for in our leaders.  I’m personally a fan of the hard-working guy that keeps his mouth shut, hands the ball to the ref and gives credit to his teammates, but I may just be a little old-school in that regard.  It would be refreshing to see a renaissance of sorts in athletics, especially with regard to sportsmanship and teamwork, something that very few of the professional programs our kids watch and emulate place very much value on.

It’s good to know that there are a few programs still doing it right, like the San Antonio Spurs, who find the right players to fit with their team concept rather than throwing money at the hottest new talent.  It would be nice to see more players like the great Tim Duncan, who are willing to sacrifice a relatively small amount of their salary to make sure their organization can thrive.  I hope his example is one that our youth can respect and understand, and that the values that are so important to athletics can once again become the focus of our youth’s choices to participate.

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