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With college football season right around the corner, it’s almost time again to watch some of the best players in the country square off. Growing up in the Midwest, where we ate, slept and breathed football each fall, I couldn’t personally participate in football — blame my 4-foot-10-inch frame in middle school. But I’ve been an Ohio State Buckeyes fan since I was in diapers.
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And in recent years, it’s been a lot of fun to watch the renaissance of the Big Ten Conference. Three of the top 10-ranked college football teams, in fact, come from the Big Ten — with Ohio State sitting pretty at No. 2 . Sports Illustrated calls it the strongest conference in the nation. Obviously, the coaches leading the charge for these programs are doing something right, especially at my beloved OSU.
Ever since Coach Urban Meyer arrived at that campus, I’ve been impressed by his leadership skills: His book Above the Line, is one of my favorite leadership reads of all time. It’s not easy getting young men to manage full-course loads and succeed on the gridiron, all without a paycheck, but Meyer makes it look easy. Any entrepreneur would be smart to take cues on leadership from one of the greatest coaches in the nation.
What makes a leader?
What makes a leader? Consider that, in the football category, Meyer holds an impressive 0.851 career-winning percentage across multiple programs, which puts him in the ranks of all-time greats.
The common thread among Meyer’s multiple tenures has been his ability to instill and manage a culture of success everywhere he goes. In his book, Meyer argues that the defining characteristic of any championship team is leadership. “Leadership isn’t a difference maker,” he wrote. “It is the [italics mine] difference maker.”
Meyer’s leadership has been particularly valuable in times of strife. I was in the stands when the Buckeyes lost the 2016 Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, and I could tell from the initial kickoff that the team wasn’t clicking. In the wake of that shutout loss, Meyer’s comments about resilience and respect reminded college football fans why he had been so good for so long. Leaders encounter setbacks all the time. Like Meyer, the best leaders accept blame, reflect on the lessons learned and focus on moving forward.
Big football leadership in small businesses
I’m a bit biased, but it’s hard to argue with Meyer’s results at Ohio State: The Buckeyes have posted a 61-6 record under him, including a national championship win in 2014. To take your leadership game to the next level, steal a few pages from his playbook:
1. Draw your line. In his book, Meyer discusses the concept of drawing a line to guide behavior for his team. Above the line are traits like “intentional” and “skillful”; below the line are words like “impulsive” and “resistant.”
So, draw your own line to define the behavioral guide rails of your organization. If people spend too much time below the line — or riding the edge — they aren’t doing enough to push your company forward.
The best players want to work with the best teammates rather than people who skate by on what’s good enough. Meyer likes to refer to a great quote from NBA legend Kobe Bryant: “I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.”
As is often quoted from Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, a paltry 33 percent of employees at U.S. workplaces surveyed are engaged. That means that the other 67 percent of workers aren’t giving their all at the office. Draw that line of yours to discover who your top performers are, and who isn’t willing to put in the work.
2. Control your responses. Sometimes life causes us to fumble or take a painful hit. Coach Meyer offers a formula for dealing with life’s endless surprises: Event + response = outcome. Big events and big outcomes require the same substantial response.
Every outcome produces events that are outside your control along with the ways in which you respond. The only way to affect the outcome, therefore, is to control your response to the preceding events. According to the 2017 Udemy Workplace Stress study, 60 percent of U.S. workers feel stressed either all or most of the time at work. By creating a culture of strong personal growth at your organization, you’re ensuring that your team will have the tools necessary to control their responses to events and beat the stress.
3. Train hard. Your response to events depends on your preparation. Coach Meyer argues that we “rise or fall to the level of our training.” Practice makes it easier to adapt to dynamic situations in sports and in entrepreneurship.
Although startup culture seems to regard “training” as almost a dirty word, teams that train hard together will be better prepared to navigate the storms of shifting industry trends. Research by the Execu|Search Group indicated that about 59 percent of employees surveyed would be more satisfied at work if they had access to projects that kept their skills sharp.
So, take training in your organization as seriously as college football teams do. Coach your players, build your team and hone people’s skills.
Related: Will Training Help Improve Employee Performance?
4. Create camaraderie within your crew. Football coaches often turn to the military for inspiration, and Meyer is no exception. In his book, he quotes U.S. Army Maj. Robert J. Rielly, who, in a military journal article, explored the topic of small-unit cohesion. “Simply put, soldiers fight because of the other members of their small unit,” Rielly wrote.
That’s true in contexts far outside the military one: Not only true soldiers but players and employees, too, press forward because they believe in the teams surrounding them. And that trust breeds success. According to Gallup, teams with poor management are 44 percent less profitable than their well-managed counterparts. A sense of camaraderie is great for your corporate culture as well as your bottom line, so facilitate trust-building among your key players.
5. Optimize alignment to increase speed. Better organized teams and companies can achieve results much more quickly than they normally would. Here, Meyer offers the following nugget: “An aligned organization gets things done faster and with better results and is more agile and responsive to the competitive environment,” he wrote.
To improve your company’s alignment, hire the right people and offer clear guidance. While a study by Willis Towers Watson found that 81 percent of employees surveyed said they had managers who treated them with respect, only 60 percent reported that their managers explained goals clearly.
Be painfully clear about your own vision and goals, to ensure everyone is on the same page. Also, empower leaders to build and maintain alignment in their units. Once you’ve established a game plan, get out of the way. When you empower people and give them autonomy, you’re able to hold them accountable for their results.
Related: What Football Teaches About Building High-Performance Teams
But. . . back to football. I can’t wait for the first games to start. I’m eager to cheer on the Buckeyes to another successful season, and I’m also excited to see what lessons I can learn from talented coaches like Urban Meyer. The next time you watch your own favorite team play, don’t just follow the ball — focus on the coaches, to observe great leadership in action.