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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

From my perspective…

An occasional blog on Leadership, business strategy and healthcare industry insights

Leadership Lessons from A Major College Football Coach

“Attacking this day with Enthusiasm unknown to Mankind.”
 - Tweet from Jim Harbaugh, Head Football Coach, University of Michigan,
    January 15, 2015

January 15 marked the first day that Jim Harbaugh could meet in-person with high school athletes, since accepting his new Head Football Coach position at the University of Michigan on December 29. With only 6 commitments (of a possible 12-16) and less than 4 weeks to National Signing Day, Harbaugh had his work cut out for him. He tweeted the above statement at 6:44am, signaling a passionate and relentless drive that literally took him coast-to-coast and into the schools and homes of dozens of the top high school athletes in the country.Harbaugh’s first thirty days on the job provide powerful examples of outstanding leadership qualities (unless you are a fan the The Ohio State University – in that case, I am afraid these leadership lessons may be clouded by your aversion to That Team Up North, TTUN as you refer to it):


Lead with Passion. Upon reading Harbaugh’s tweet that morning, I was ready to “run through a wall” for Coach Harbaugh – a questionable idea at my age.  What it signaled – to prospective athletes, current players, coaching staff, fans and rivals – was an intense passion and commitment to excel.  People in any organization – be it a business, an athletic team and even a voluntary organization – are motivated by passion.  We know that we excel when we are passionate about what we do.  And, passion is contagious.  Leadership involves demonstrable passion for the activities of the organization and conveying that passion unto others.


Aim High.  Recruiting is the lifeblood of major college football programs. High school football players make “commitments” to college programs as early as their freshman and sophomore years.  These commitments, however, are non-binding until they sign Letters of Intent (LOIs), which cannot occur until the first Wednesday of February in the senior year of high school.  With less than four weeks to secure LOIs, Harbaugh went after the best high school seniors possible, ignoring their commitments to other elite programs.  Prospective student athletes, already committed to such major programs as Alabama, UCLA, USC, Ohio State, Florida, LSU and Texas, were targeted by Harbaugh and his staff.  Undeterred by their commitments, Harbaugh lived by an expression he often quotes -  “we bow to no man, we bow to no program.”  Instead, he set his sights high, knowing that to be the best, he had to expect to be the best of himself, his staff and his players.


Surround Yourself with Exceptional Talent.  Upon accepting his new position at the U of M, Harbaugh wasted no time in assembling the best coaching staff possible.  More critically, he was unabashed in his resolve to attract the best coaches to join him in Ann Arbor. He also wasn’t shy about attracting people at the top of their profession, even offering them roles that could be considered a “lateral” move or even a step back from their current roles.  To wit, Harbaugh’s staff of nine assistant coaches include seven with NFL experience.  On both the defensive and offensive sides of the ball, Harbaugh hired 2 coaches with experience as coordinators – in fact, the 2 defensive coaches with coordinator experience coached 2 of the top ten defensive in the sport in 2014.  Clearly, Harbaugh wasn’t simply filling his staff with qualified coaches, he intended to assemble the most experienced and successful staff possible.


Remain True to Who You Are and to Your Culture.  Today, “spread” offenses are all the rage in college football. Ohio State, the newly crowned National Champion, embraced the spread offense under Coach Urban Meyer (I wonder how Woody Hayes of “three yards and a cloud of dust” fame would feel about this). Yet, Harbaugh does not appear to want to follow this crowd. Instead, he recognizes where his competency lies and, where the culture and tradition of the University of Michigan football program resides – power, pro-style offenses, featuring big “road-grating” linemen, tall, accurate quarterbacks, bruising running backs and tight ends that can both block and catch. Whether his explicit intent or not, Harbaugh is acting upon the adage that “Culture eats Strategy for lunch”.  Harbaugh’s commitment to power football, albeit against the trend, is an explicit recognition by Harbaugh that real, sustainable success, at this program, will flow from doing well what Michigan has traditionally done best.  In business terms, trying to be something you are not or something foreign to your organizational culture, likely will not it be successful – even if it’s the trend.

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