June 19, 2024

Styles Of Leadership

Try Styles Of Leadership You Like It

Nick Saban offers some valuable lessons on leadership

7 min read

ORLANDO – During the closing keynote at HIMSS24 on Friday, recently retired University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban – who among many other career accomplishments led the University of Alabama Crimson Tide to a 201–29 record and six national championships over 17 seasons – offered his perspectives on what it takes to succeed, and how leaders should help inspire their teams, in any line of work.

In a fireside chat with HIMSS Board Member Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, the storied gridiron tactician explained that, early on in his sports career, he “never wanted to be a coach.”

But once he found himself in a position of leadership – starting 34 years ago with a head coaching stint at University of Toledo and progressing over the next three decades to jobs at Michigan State and LSU (with a two-year sojourn in the NFL) before arriving in Tuscaloosa – Saban, considered by many to be the best college football coach of all time, has gathered some pearls of wisdom.

His appearance at HIMSS24 took place barely three months since he announced his retirement in January. In a wide-ranging talk with Compton-Phillips, he looked back on some lessons learned after a long career.

First, it’s key to cultivate the discipline to execute each day on your goals. It starts with a rigorous self-assessment.

“If you can self-assess – and it’s easy to self-assess – if I do this, what happens? And what happens if I don’t do this? You can have a little foresight, and you can anticipate what might happen in the future and what you need to do to change it – and you can also edit your behavior in terms of what you need to do to accomplish the goals you have.

“And then the next thing, which is the hardest thing, is to have the discipline to execute every day,” said Saban. “What is discipline? Doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. The way it’s supposed to get done, do the right thing the right way, the right time, all the time. Those are great definitions of discipline.

“But self-discipline comes down to two things,” he explained. “Here’s something I know I’m supposed to do that I really don’t want to do. Can you make yourself do it? And over here, there’s something you know you’re not supposed to do, but you want to do it. Can you keep yourself from it?

“If you can make those choices and decisions correctly every day, you’re always going to stay on the path of being able to execute and do the things you need to do to accomplish the goals that you have.”

Saban also spoke of the importance of culture in any given organization where staff and team members are all focused on maintaining discipline and achieving goals. 

People ask him all the time: “How do you win?” said Saban. “How do you have success? And they always say, is it because you have a good game plan? Is it because you have a good system? Is it because you can adapt? Is it because you’re a competitor? Is it because you get all this talent?

“The number one thing is culture,” he said. “And the culture comes from the individuals that make the team what it is.”

Keeping that culture going, year after year, can be a challenge when the individuals make up that culture are constantly changing as new people cycle through the organization.

But “as long as you’re constantly challenging the individual people and showing them how they benefit from doing the right things, you have a great opportunity to reinforce the culture,” said Saban.

He explained that one core strategy is to appeal to team members’ sense of pride, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own success – and that of the team.

“We show everybody that they’re the best version of themselves, that they’re going to create value for their future, which will benefit their quality of life and their chances of being successful in life,” he said. “Most people want to do that. But a lot of people don’t know exactly how to do it, so they need someone and something to follow a plan.

“Everybody’s got to do what they need to do to be a part of the team,” said Saban. “I’ve said before: Mediocre people don’t like high achievers; high achievers don’t like mediocre people. You can’t establish principles and values in an organization and a standard and not have everybody make a commitment. Because if you let those two things coexist – mediocre people and high achievers in the same organization – you’re never going to have any togetherness, you’re never going to have any teamwork.”

Saban said he often told his players a story about when he was a kid in West Virginia.

“I used to go fishing, and there was this old guy – he would catch big fish and throw them back, but then he would keep the small fish. He said, ‘I’ve only got a nine-inch frying pan at home.'”

“I always tell that story. Then I say, ‘How big is your frying pan? What is your confidence in terms of how you believe in yourself, in terms of what you can accomplish and what you can do? Because the sky’s the limit if you’re willing to make the choices to do it, and you don’t put these self-imposed limitations on yourself.'”

But even the most committed and self-motivated player on any given team still needs a strong leader to look up to, one who sets the course toward a strategic goal that’s bigger and more important than any one person.

“I actually changed my style as a leader,” said Saban. “I was always a transactional leader. I was a very result-oriented person. Winning the game was most important, not how you played the game. If we won, I patted people on the back. I was happy. I gave them positive self-gratification – which everybody needs, and it was good.

“But if we lost? I was very critical. It was always somebody’s fault. ‘How are we going to fix this?’ Everything was based on results. If you’re negative with people, and there’s no teaching involved, it kills people’s morale. You don’t really want to be that way.”

Saban said he remembers the moment when he shifted strategies in a profound way – moving from a transactional leadership style to a transformational one. It was during his fourth season coaching at Michigan State.

“In 1998, we go to play Ohio State,” he explained “They’re undefeated. They’ve been number one since preseason. This is the 10th game of the year. And we’re 4-5 at Michigan State. We’re average. And Ohio State is a dominant, really good team. And I said, ‘We got no chance to win this game.’ No chance. I didn’t know what approach to use with the team. I didn’t know how, because I was transactional. How are we going to win this transaction, when I think we have no chance to do it?

“So I call a psychiatrist. And he says, ‘You need to tell the players to play one play at a time. Like it has a history and a life its own. Don’t look at the scoreboard. There’s no external factors. There’s no crowd, there’s no nothing. Just go have fun and compete. And after that play is over, focus on the next play. Never look back. So it’s nothing about results. It’s just one play at a time.’ Very process oriented. Very focused, not on not the outcome but on what would you have to do to get the outcome, and how would you have to compete to do it?

“And guess what? We won. We won. We got behind 17-7 in the game, but nobody got frustrated. Nobody did anything. Everybody just kept playing. And it actually frustrated them because they were used to just people sort of melting.

“I became a transformational leader from that moment on. And if you look from that game on behind that, I was a very average coach from that time on. I have been very successful as a coach. Transformational leadership means you’re going to set a good example. You’re going to be somebody that somebody can emulate, and you care about other people to help them for their benefit, not your benefit, for their benefit.

“You care. You have a vision, you have a plan. You’re willing to inspire and teach them everything that they need to do to be able to be the best version of themselves. It wasn’t transactional anymore. It was transformational. It just completely changed.”

Saban added: “I think that that type of leadership is much more effective in this day and age than the other.”

Mike Miliard is executive editor of Healthcare IT News
Email the writer: mike.miliard@himssmedia.com
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS publication.

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