Lessons from the National Champ’s Coach

I’ve always felt like I led with positivity, but I’ve run into my fair share of leaders who feel like positive leadership is soft and ineffective. Regardless, I’ve stuck with what comes naturally to me and I’ve found it to be quite effective. It is absolutely possible to build relationships with people, encourage them to be their best, lift them up, and also be able to hold them accountable when they fall short. I find myself being almost entirely forward-focused, which means I never dwell in the past and I use the present to set the vision for the desired future.

It’s worked for me in my 20 years of leadership. Here’s another guy it works for. NCAA Football’s reigning National Champs head coach Dabo Swinney. Dabo is head coach of the Clemson Tigers, and he’s brought a struggling Clemson program back to life over the past several seasons. This turn-around culminates with Clemson having been to the title game the last two years. The first trip they were beat by Alabama, arguably the best college football program in NCAA history. But in the second trip, Clemson beat Alabama. What follows, I believe all the way to my core, is why Clemson beat Alabama that last game.

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I’ve recently read Jon Gordon’s book The Power of Positive Leadership in which he tells several stories about Dabo’s positive leadership. Two stories stuck out to me from the book, and both reveal how great a leader he is, using his positivity to lead, get the best out of others, and get results.

First, when Tommy Bowden resigned as the Clemson coach in 2008, Dabo was the wide receiver coach and was named as the interim head coach. In his first meeting with the athletic director and the board of trustees, they shared their vision with him of becoming a program like Michigan or Georgia. His response? “No offense, but my vision is much greater than that. My vision is to create a program all those other schools want to be like.” It all started there, when he brought two signs into his office. One sign said “Believe” and one said “I Can’t” with the ‘t’ crossed out. When he took over as coach, the team was .500. The next year they went 9-5. After one year at 6-6, he has since led Clemson to 10 or more wins in every season.

Then, as his 14-1 team headed to the locker room after losing to Alabama in the 2015 championship game, his positivity shines again. Where many coaches would focus on what players did wrong or what the team didn’t get done, he said this: “I have never been more proud of a group of men than I am right now, we just didn’t make enough good plays to beat a team as good as Alabama. You seniors, you have created a legacy that will live on, and you underclassmen, get ready ’cause we’re coming back!” As Jon Gordon describes in the book, Dabo went on to talk about his vision for training camp the next season and how they were going to win the national championship because they were going to be better than everyone else. He got every player to believe and buy in right there.

Of course you know the rest. So for those of you who are watching other leaders and wondering if your positive approach to leadership can lead you to success, the answer is a resounding YES! It’s absolutely possible to lead with positivity and still have a culture of vision, drive, passion, focus, and the pursuit of continued improvement. You just have to start in the right place. Some leaders will only focus on process and forget about people. Not me, and you shouldn’t either, because relationship is at the very core of being able to hold others accountable. To quote Dabo Swinney – “We are absolutely process-driven, but we are relationship-driven first. It’s relationships that drive our processes.” And to be very frank with you, it works. At the beginning of the 2017 NCAA season, the 3 teams on top of the polls were Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida State. Those are 3 powerhouse teams almost every year. Guess what team handed each of them their last loss in the 2016 season? You already know, don’t you?

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