Over the years, I have always enjoyed reading articles about some of the great sports coaches. While I’m not a sports fan myself, I find the methods of coaches who consistently produce championship teams very helpful in understanding how to be an effective leader. From Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and John Wooden in Basketball, to Tom Landry, Joe Paterno and Woody Hayes in football, and Casey Stengel, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa in professional baseball, they all have some things in common.
None of these coaches are perfect people. Each one has their quirks and has done things we would not consider an effective leadership practice. But that is true of all of us. We all hope to be as effective as possible and somehow do enough right to make up for our human weaknesses. You don’t have to be perfect to be a leader…just have your heart in the right place and do enough things right to make a difference to those you lead.
Each of these famous coaches is a study in individualism. Some are known for blowing off steam. Others for making wildly outlandish statements. A few are known for being a class act. Others not so much. But underneath these all too human ways lie true leaders who were able to get each individual to play at their best and work together as a team to win many championship games.
They all focused on the whole person, not just the athlete. Just as we talk about a character based leader leading from who they are and not from a title, a great leader focuses on the character of each person they are leading. A gifted athlete with a poor character, weak discipline and other failings will never be able to reach their potential. As they let themselves down so they let the team down. That’s true for members, employees, and anyone else we might lead.
No one approached this better than John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. When I was in junior high school, I went with my father to the annual father-son dinner. The speaker that evening was Johnny Wooden who talked about his Pyramid Of Success that he focused on with all his players. What’s not evident from reading these 12 leadership principles is what he talked about when discussing them which included mastering schoolwork and the importance of practice.
Beyond a leader focusing on the character of those they lead, they also have to focus on minute details or what we might call blocking and tackling. Some may say this is about training or teaching, not leadership. The truth is that no one is going to follow the instructions of a teacher, trainer or coach unless they respect that person as a leader first. It’s through effective leadership that we create an environment where someone can learn.
The most successful coaches all focus on minute details and measurements of performance. They measure the number of inches someone jumps every time they rebound. They measure the position of their eyes, arms, body and feet every time they swing a bat. They literally measure everything they are doing so they can pinpoint changes in what they are doing that are causing them to not perform as well. They then focus on correcting those techniques to improve their rebound percentage or batting average.
Great leadership is about all the big things like vision and character as well as the little things like technique, steps and methods…and everything in between. You don’t have to be perfect to be a leader but you do have to put the focus on all the areas that matter which includes among other things their character and skills.