Leadership lessons from Lovie Smith | Former Chicago Bears coach
"I won't back up; I don't back down." — Colt Ford
By Aaron Vaughn
Those of you who know me much at all know that I am a big fan of NFL football. I enjoy the game, yes, but am also intrigued by the business.
When I was a lot younger I would study the game itself. Now I study management and leadership styles of the league's owners, upper management and coaches.
I read earlier today that Lovie Smith, head coach of the Chicago Bears, was fired after a 10-6 season. Smith, who came up through the ranks as a top defensive coordinator, has had what most people would consider a fair amount of success as a head coach. NFL head coaches get fired all the time, and Smith is only one of six that have been let go so far.
It's pretty rare that an NFL coach gets the ax after a 10-6 season, however. But a closer look at this season, and his tenure as a whole, makes the move understandable to many observers. Ownership thanked Smith for his defensive prowess but blamed the team's failures on offense during his tenure as the reason for the firing.
I had to laugh at that one — defensive coach fails at offense. I think it offers us a valuable lesson in management and leadership.
Watching Lovie Smith on the sidelines over the years, I have always felt like he exuded a kind of stoic cluelessness. He often looked lost out there; like he was in over his head. But behind the scenes, defensive players would sing his praises. When he was a coordinator, Smith's defenses were creative and powerful. He certainly earned his shot in the big chair.
I'll give him some credit ... Smith understands his shortcomings on offense. He tried several offensive coaches and coordinators over the years, some of whom did not fit at all with Smith's coaching style or philosophy. But many of the changes were widely reported to be because of ownership and management directives.
Therein lies the problem.
Smith got his shot because he was bold and successful. When he floundered a bit, he cowered to management. He did what he felt he had to do to keep his job. Smith let fear of losing his job overshadow why he got the job in the first place. From that moment on, he managed from a position of weakness.
Great leaders rarely know every single thing about their business. It's impossible to be a master of all trades. But the best leaders understand that they can't bury their head in the sand and let other people tell them what to do. They find the right people and let them work ... but keep on top of the operation to make sure everybody is on the same page and doing their jobs. They lead and they listen. They fix what's broken ... and not what isn't.
Leaders are hired by people who want results; we all get that. But often the same people who make these hires quickly forget why they did in the first place, and start to meddle. In my view, what separates the great leaders from the rest is the strength of their belief in themselves. They don't back down to management. They don't shoot themselves in the foot and allow higher-ups to make directives that will lead to results for which they, ultimately, will be held responsible.
"If I'm going to cook, I want to buy the groceries."
That's a quote from Bill Parcells, legendary NFL head coach. Say what you will about him, he led with vision and toughness, never wavered in the belief in himself, and never allowed himself to be pushed around by the bean counters.
Leadership styles are varied and have evolved. But great leaders are always fearless.