Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from Nick Saban

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me in Washington D.C. on Sunday, where I prepared for the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Marketing Forum that kicked off on Monday. The fantastic event was hosted by Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices PenFed Realty (a special thank you to Karmela Lejarde who organized, MCed and hosted the event, along with Kevin Wiles, Jessica Holt and their team). On Tuesday, in addition to the Market Forum, I also joined the monthly HomeServices of America CEO virtual leadership meeting. Wednesday, I traveled back to Northern California. Today, I’m en route to Palm Springs for a site visit to begin planning the second annual Stronger Together HomeServices of America top performer’s event. Between meetings, I sat down to write this post to you.

College football is currently in full swing, and with seven total national championships to his name, University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban is without question one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. Surprisingly, his philosophy for leadership isn’t about focusing on the win but focusing on the process that’ll get you there.

In the late ‘90s, Saban was coaching the Michigan State University Spartans when he became friends with a psychiatry professor named Dr. Lionel “Lonny” Rosen who strongly believed in a form of step-by-step thinking first pioneered by Dr. Aaron Beck, who is often called “the Father of Cognitive Behavior Theory.” The process was popularized by the Alcohol Anonymous recovery program, and Saban thought it could work on his players, too.

Sports are complicated and football is no exception. The NFL once reported that roughly 125 offensive plays are run during the course of a single game. Tackling a game from a holistic perspective can be a little daunting for any player, especially when you consider how many variables can impact the outcome of the game.

What Saban realized through his conversations with Dr. Rosen is that the average play in football lasts roughly seven seconds; so if players can execute during those seven seconds, then another seven seconds, then seven seconds after that, those seconds will combine to form an incredible game. Excellence is not a solitary action performed once; excellence is what happens when you build on small moments of near-perfection and top performance. To do this, Saban tells his team to stay present.

“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship,” he once said. “Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you need to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”

As part of this process-driven approach, Saban tracked everything that happened on the field. His team could win a game by 28 points, but you still might see him fuming on the sidelines. Why? Because he has what he calls an “inner scoreboard.” There’s the scoreboard everyone sees and then there’s the inner scoreboard, which compares his players against their own performance, as a measure to move the goalpost ever-forward.

Maybe you won against the team but were you better in this game than the last? That is the difference between a game winner and a championship team.

Saban is famous for tracking everything his players do, so they can see how they’re performing on their inner scoreboard. He’d track whether a workout was completed, how a drill was run, how often they followed dress code, whether they dropped their shoulders – all in the name of process-driven progress.

When you operate with a process, there are no secrets. You know where you stand and what you must do to improve. There is complete clarity not only of your current capabilities but also of the road ahead that you must walk to get where you want to be. The process is a long-term approach to achievement filled with short-term wins.

So, what’s the message? Those who follow a process-driven approach to winning are those who are driven to achieve. But the truth of the matter, as Saban once said, is that “mediocre people don’t like high achievers and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.” If everyone in an organization isn’t buying into the same principles and values for process-driven high-performance, then you’ll lack team chemistry and the kind of fluid communication necessary for sustainable success. Everyone across a team must be committed to the same standard of excellence. Just like Saban famously said, “You can’t win together if you can’t work together.”

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