I’ve always enjoyed leadership, but I’ve enjoyed it even more so since I ran across a fantastic book by the former coach and current broadcaster Tony Dungy. In “The Mentor Leader,” a beautifully written book, his main premise is important and one I don’t hear raised often: The most effective strategy for a sustainable, successful culture is the one that looks to continually build and create other leaders. If someone’s departure creates a debilitating leadership vacuum, the organization has failed to mentor others and will struggle to sustain itself, let alone grow.
I get it. We all want to be needed. We all look to maintain our edge or our usefulness, but holding others back isn’t the answer. Our own growth is the answer, and ensuring the growth of others can, and should, be a part of that.
Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, does this well. In fact, not only does he develop football and leadership skills in his staff, but he also embraces their departure from the Seahawks’ nest. Think about the University of Florida’s own Dan Quinn. Here’s a guy who was an integral member of Pete’s defensive staff as the assistant head coach and defensive line coach, and he left to join Florida as its defensive coordinator. Many (most?) coaches would’ve blocked Dan’s move, but Pete embraced it as a part of Dan’s growth. Dan stayed in Gainesville for two seasons and then returned to Seattle, this time as the defensive coordinator (replacing Gus Bradley, who Pete had lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars as their head coach). Dan could’ve departed following his first season back in Seattle, but he instead chose to stay for a second season before being named the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
A pain to train, replace and re-train? Absolutely.
Is it an accident that Seattle attracts top-flight talents who then go on to become head coaches elsewhere? I don’t think so.
While Tony has brilliantly articulated seven concepts (“Seven E’s”) to enhance leadership potential, I’ll mention two I think Pete does particularly well: Engage and Elevate.
Engaging with those we lead can be messy. We learn about their lives, their hopes and their dreams. In the instance that we’ve got to help them find a better place that fits their skill set — maybe even outside our organization, i.e., firing them — it can be particularly messy. But, people respect what they see firsthand, especially from those who don’t see any task as beneath them. Pete interacts firsthand with his players and staff — for examples, search the interwebs for his pranks or other videos.
He also elevates, in the case of Dan Quinn, Gus Bradley and others. When possible, he takes people already on staff, or who have been on staff, and promotes them to greater leadership. The benefits are twofold: First, it reinforces the already engrained culture, and second, it provides another incentive to attract the brightest and best to Seattle — come here, where you can leave or be promoted within, both to greater responsibility.
Leadership requires intentionality. Engaging and Elevating can be challenging and time-consuming, especially in the short run. Micromanaging or simply refusing to delegate can be easier and can ensure the job is done to the leader’s satisfaction — the first time.
One last story. I was visiting the Colts at their hotel the day before a road playoff game. I was sitting in the defensive team meeting, and at the conclusion, when the players filed out, the five defensive coaches engaged in a spirited battle over the proper way to defend an unusual formation the opponent showed on film.
Back and forth the debate raged, and finally, after 10 minutes, a consensus was reached. The coaches filed out, and Tony and I were left alone in the hotel’s meeting room.
“Tony, you pretty much created this defense in Tampa. But, you sat silently in the back while they argued. Why didn’t you simply tell them the answer?”
“They didn’t ask.” I started to respond, but he continued. “I hired my defensive coordinator — all the coaches — to do a job. If they need guidance or assistance, I’m here. They know that. At the same time, they’ve been in this system for years. Their expertise and intellectual abilities add to the whole — I don’t want to inhibit that. We will evaluate their performance at the end of the year. But until then, I need them to do their job. To lead their players. For me to step in and do it would be a disservice to all of them.”
Good thoughts from a terrific leader.
NATHAN WHITAKER has spoken to Duke Business School’s Leadership symposium, the Miami Dolphins, and various corporations, churches, schools, and sports teams on topics outside of his love for Taco Bell and his children including leadership and teamwork, living a life of significance and his various failures. For more information on hiring Nathan to speak to your group, contact Brooke Newell at firstname.lastname@example.org.