The following are some excerpts of a story written on our Aggie football coach Kevin Sumlin in regard to his leadership style and thoughts. The story was written for Forbes.com by Jason Belzer. It is a lengthy yet well-written article and you can read it in its entirety here.
“Many people think that winning the game of football is simply a matter of having the eleven most talented players on the field, but that’s rarely the case,” explains Sumlin. “[At Texas A&M] we know that it’s as much about a player’s intangibles as it is what you can see from direct observation. We look for guys that are always at the ball, even when it’s not expected of them. When it comes to evaluating others, most leaders fail to realize that it takes absolutely no talent to give effort; effort is the great equalizer.”
Yet for an organization to be truly successful, visionary leadership and exceptional talent is not enough. Great leaders like Sumlin understand the importance of fostering rigorous debate among their employees while insuring that such heated discussions remain constructive for the organization’s strategic efforts. They must carefully balance the need to be authoritative when discussing the team’s strategic direction, all the while avoiding dictating the underlying substance of the decision. To this end, the Texas A&M coaching staff has an unprecedented amount of autonomy when it comes to the sharing of ideas, and is encouraged to contribute vigorously when it comes to discussing what is best for the team in any particular situation.
“I don’t want to lead people down a certain path, but rather urge them to speak their minds without fear of reprisal,” explains Sumlin. “As a leader you can stifle ideas by leading with your opinions and preventing talented people from having the freedom to be creative. You’re not just hiring people to compliment your strengths, you also need to make sure they make you cognizant of your own weaknesses.”
Part of effective leadership is creating an environment in which dissenting views are shared freely with the intent of avoiding groupthink and fostering innovative ideas that lead to better decision-making processes. Leaders must work hard to avoid what management scientist Michael Aktins calls a “charade of consultation,” in which a leader engages the opinion of subordinates without a genuine interest in their opinions. Moreover, Sumlin is keenly aware that this charade will expose itself at a time where indecision can be most fatal to an organization.
“If our staff isn’t on the same page when we’re in the middle of a game, it can be disastrous,” explains Sumlin. “When you get hit in the face with adversity and your back is against a wall, the last thing you can afford is dissention. You can’t fool our [players], if they sense conflict and indecisiveness among the coaching staff we’ll lose them right then and there.”
It is no surprise then that the Monday following each football game, the Aggies hold an early morning meeting known only as “The Truth”, where coaches and players are allowed to discuss, and even confront one another, over the preceding weekend’s events. Everything said during such sessions is considered confidential, and given some of the brutal feedback, most players would prefer to keep it that way. It also creates an opportunity for the coaching staff to reinforce their expectations for the players, and vice-versa.
“When it comes to teachable moments, there is no greater lesson than the one that can be learned from football. It only takes one guy to not do his job for a play to be unsuccessful,” explains Sumlin. “We can go back and show [the players] what happened on film and point out how their miscues caused a catastrophic impact on the outcome of the play. When you call someone out in front of their peers, it’s an incredibly powerful way to motivate them to want to do better the next time around,” he expounds.
“There’s a common misconception in football that the offense is aware of what’s happening on the field when the defense is playing (and vice versa). But in reality, that’s rarely the case. We know it’s easy for players to look at the scoreboard and make hasty judgments about what their teammates are and aren’t accomplishing, but rarely is it that simple. As coaches, we’re responsible for making sure the players know exactly why the outcome of a game occurred, rather than them assuming that it was due to one of their teammate’s failures,” Sumlin explains.
“I’ve always been a believer that more games are lost than won. There’s a million ways to skin a cat, and there isn’t just one way to run a great organization, but to emulate or be like somebody else is dangerous,” opines Sumlin. “You can have the most talented players in the world, but if you’re inconsistent in your leadership and strategy, it will prove fatal for you every time. Whatever your style may be, what matters is that you remain unwavering to it, and that you focus on how to make your organization better instead of figuring out how to make your competition worse.”
“When fall camp started and there was a tremendous amount of media attention on Johnny [due to the NCAA investigation], many of our detractors couldn’t understand just how it was possible for us to continue to practice and perform at a high level,” explains Sumlin. “From the inside though, we were as intensely focused as ever because our culture has always been about making what occurs externally irrelevant. This is why we’ve been to avoid all distractions. Our players recognize their focus should only be on the people they need most – their coaches and teammates.”