So what can a retired collegiate football coach who has not coached a game since the 1989 season teach us about leadership? Plenty, if you are Bo Schembechler, head coach at the University of Michigan from 1969 to 1989.
His lessons are brought to life in vivid stories — some poignant, some funny — that will enlighten every leader’s repertoire. Collected in book form by John U. Bacon who collaborated with Schembechler in Bo’s Lasting Lessons. Schembechler who died last November strides across these pages in full form dispensing wisdom that rings true to leaders at every level, most often of those who never set foot on the gridiron. Here are some of those lessons.
Respect the institution. When Schembechler became head coach of Michigan football team, he laid down the law on his expectations – for players, coaches, and staff. He was tough but sincere. He also built upon the foundation of what had come before him. As much as he pushed for change, he couched it within the Michigan’s institutional values of integrity, excellence and education.
Stir the pot. As rigid as Bo may have appeared, he loved good debate, especially about important issues. That debate carried into the coaches’ room; he never wanted yes men; he wanted assistants (and that included staffers) who would stand up to him and prove him wrong. Only when ideas are tested by the heat of confrontation and conflict, as Bo attests, will they be valid.
Foster internal leadership. No coach, nor leader, can do it all himself. Successful teams jell because the players abide by the standards, often imposed by themselves. Call this internal leadership. At Michigan, expectations are for the position and the team. On the field, it means the players do their best because the best is expected; off the field, it means the players abide by an established code of conduct. That way, coaches do not act as cops; the players enforce the rules themselves. It is a kind of honor code.
Honor the role players. Teams need stars, sure, but the stars are supported by the role players. Bo was a master at making sure the walk-on players (those without scholarship) were recognized for their efforts. He enjoyed talking up their accomplishments. Furthermore, Bo made certain the staff felt part of the team as well as part of the larger picture. He said his secretary was not simply typing letters, she was contributing to a Big Ten title; the equipment man was not simply stacking helmets he was preparing the team for a Rose Bowl win.
Kick them when they are up. Bo was a fiery guy, no question, and contrary to what you may think that fire was roasting when the team won big. He would verbally pick on his players for not making a block, or failing to read a play, even when they had played exceptionally well. Coaches guard against their players become too confident which when unchecked can slide into complacency. By contrast, when the team had lost, Bo assumed warm fatherly role, comforting, coaxing and reassuring. It is a good lesson to remember especially when times are tough and the heat is on.
Love your people. Viewed from sidelines at practice or at games, Bo could seem like a tyrant. He yelled, screamed and carried on. Behind closed doors, he was gentle and involved. He cared for his coaches and his players as if they were members of his own family. Whenever anyone needed a word of advice or a helping hand, Bo was there front and center. He lived his life through others and his legacy is more than victories it is in lives developed and well-led.
We learn leadership best by observation and example. Stories are often the best illustration. Reading this book may provoke laughter or may be even a tear, but you will come away knowing a bit more about the human condition and what it takes to get things done and done right and the right way.
Bo Schembechler and John U. Bacon Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership New York: Warner Business Books 2007