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Bobby Bowden and Leadership

I recently read an unusual leadership book on a revered College football coach in the States named Bobby BB on leadershipBowden. Bobby was remarkable in the relationships he formed and the influence he had on people as a leader. The fact he rose to such pre-eminence as a leader may seem surprising to Australians who don’t know much about College football. However College sport over there is a super serious business, and the players he worked with are at a delicate point in their lives (as late teens on), where a real leader can make a huge impact, and have a big say in where their lives go from there.      

This book is in part a tribute to Bowden as hundreds of his students provide insight on how he impacted their lives. The book also looks at Bowden as a leader via these reflections, analysing the 7 traits great leaders share. People like Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King are used as reference points for ‘Coach’ Bowden.

The first trait they all share is Vision. It is enormously important for a leader to build a bridge to the future, and paint that as a clear picture for everyone to embrace. I recently attended a lunch where Gerry Ryan spoke. Gerry runs Jayco, but also is well known as the man behind Green Edge Racing and the Walking with Dinosaurs production. Gerry stressed in all his business experiences the massive importance of being able to build a clear vision. It may be audacious, it may be daring, but a clear vision that resonates and is aligned to purpose will help drive motivation to achieve.    

The second is communication – communicating the right information in the right way. Often this is clear and effective story telling. In the case of a football team – it is in the coaching – the messages, the playbook. In business it is as much about being understood. Clear communication clarifies and drives performance.

The third is the all-important people skills, including the ability to trust and empower, and to have important conversations on things like personal development. In the book they have a great saying – “ if you want to lead the orchestra you need to turn your back on the audience”. This represents the leader as one who develops other people into leaders; who lets them get the credit whenever it is possible, but accepts responsibility when things don’t go as well as planned. The people skills that great leaders share include being present, listening, empowering and delegating. And the book adds an important element that Bobby had in spades that helped him get along with people – a sense of humour. Putting people at ease is what he did well – and he often used humour to achieve that.

The fourth trait is competence and expertise. No one looks up to a leader who can’t get things done. You need to be able to be respected – and that means you need to be able to execute.

The fifth is boldness and courage, which is taking responsibility for actions, dealing with issues that divert you from the main game – like underperformance – and developing an agenda for change.

They are the first five traits. The last two traits are, in my view, the most important. When they say leaders are born, not made, they are accurate only part of the time. Lots of leaders learn from experience how to build, develop and drive teams. For others, like Bobby, it comes pretty naturally, but he is more exception than rule. But all leaders share two traits right from the start of their journey – the first is Character. In the book it talks about the difference between honesty and integrity – honesty is being true to others while integrity is being true to yourself. Character is about honesty and integrity – but also about persistence and resilience.

Last of all, great leaders have humility and a serving heart. I remember reading some of the findings by Jim Collins in “Good to great” – and his conclusion was the best leaders were the humble ones. And that makes a lot of sense as people want to follow people of conviction and character, but people also respect those leaders who let others in the team get credit when it is due, but take responsibility when that is required.    

At the end of the day leadership is about influencing people. Bobby Bowden seems to have had an enormous influence on all of the people he led, and we can learn from his success. At Florida State, where he coached for over 30 years, Bobby created a movement before Twitter and Facebook made it all the much easier.

Image courtesy of Advantage Media Group

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