I went to hear Coach Herman Boone speak this afternoon hoping to pick up some additional insight into his leadership style. While he may not have been the most eloquent speaker I’ve ever heard, he was without a doubt one of the most passionate. What I took away from Coach Boone’s talk were two clear messages — the importance of talking to one another as a means to find common ground and overcome differences and the importance of setting expectations — both of which have larger implications that reach way beyond simply being tools to create a successfully integrated team.
As part of the introduction for Coach Boone, a video clip from the movie was played. It was the scene where the Coach gets the team and other coaches up at 3AM during camp to go for a run through the woods, ultimately ending up at Gettysburg Battlefield. (Interestingly, Coach Boone said that was not how that scene actually happened. He did take the team to the battlefield, but it was at 9PM and by bus. The message, however, was still the same.) According to the Coach, that was indeed a turning point to get the boys talking to each other in ways that they would discover things they had in common, start to develop trust, which leads to respect which is the “emotional glue” that ultimately binds the boys together.
I asked Coach Boone if he would address his relationship with Coach Yost, and he admitted that it was very strained at first, but once they started to talk, there too, the trust started to form. Boone said that they discovered they were both forced into the uncomfortable situation they found themselves in as a result of similar circumstances. Boone had won 5 championships with his team in North Carolina when, he says, the Superintendent of Schools told him he was being replaced because the town wasn’t ready for a Black head coach. His replacement was a 22 year old white man who, Boone says, has lost his last 10 games. That gave Boone and Yost a common understanding of what it felt like to be displaced by someone who, in their mind, did not seem qualified for the position.
From a personal perspective, I put faith in this method of team building in the face of apparent differences. A few months back, I started a new job as a senior member (although not the leader) of an existing team. Since the junior members of the team will eventually have some reporting responsibilities to me, it was important for me to earn their trust and respect early on; however, I found starting that process difficult because of the age difference between us. What we eventually learned was that we all share a love of dogs, and sharing our dog stories has broken the ice and made it more comfortable for us to work together.
The second of Coach Boone’s messages today was about setting expectations. I smiled when he gave the example — right from the movie — of expecting his players to be perfect. “Drop a pass, run a mile.” The Coach talked about the expectations in terms of working with “his boys” on the team, but he also applied his advice to larger life situations such as child rearing. As a leader, setting clear expectations and following through on the delivery of consequences are important ingredients in building trust, not only between teammates and the coach but also among the team members. If everyone knows how high the bar is set, you can depend on each other to help you get there.
This is an area of leadership where I feel I struggle. It’s not that I don’t set high expectations. My problem is following through on consequences when those expectations aren’t met. Whether it’s giving in to the cute little face of one of my Goldens when he doesn’t “go sit down” to wait for his biscuit and I give it to him anyway, or whether it’s when I do the work myself in order to cover for someone who hasn’t delivered on what they promised, my style is more to appease everyone than to make an example of someone. This is an area I need to work on because as part of my current role at work, I am charged with developing the professional skills of the junior members on the team, and I will fail to provide good leadership in that respect if I am not holding them responsible for meeting expectations.
So why did I title this blog E Pluribus Unum? Because I heard you, Coach, when you cited that short but powerful phrase. The power of the team is greater than the power of an individual. But, I also heard you when you said there is no requirement to give up what makes you unique to become “unum.” So I will continue to strive to be a better leader. To talk more with people to learn what makes them different as well as what makes us similar, and then use both the differences and the similarities to create a cohesive team. I will work to remember that consequences can make an individual better, stronger, and thereby more valuable to the team. And yes, Coach Boone, I will Remember the Titans!