If you pay attention to college football then you know Nick Saban has long been king of the sport. Nick has won six national championships and has a 65-6 record against SEC opponents. Three of his six losses were to Guz Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers. Few will argue that Gus has had the most success against the nation’s best football program.
Gus was fired after his eighth season. Sure, Gus had a track record of giving Nick and Alabama fits, but that wasn’t good enough. The goal was to win championships, not occasionally beat a team that wins championships.
Leaders can learn from Gus’ firing. I want to highlight a few insights that we should all apply to our leadership.
Clarity of Expectations and Standards
The expectations and standards must be front and center for the team, without exceptions. When results fall short of the expectations, it’s the leader’s responsibility to course correct. If the leader’s interventions don’t change the results, then expect a leadership change. It doesn’t matter how much the team “likes” the leader, or what additional work (or temporary chaos) it might create for the company, expectations must be met.
Standards for the team also apply to the leader. What leaders do is so loud the team shouldn’t have to hear what they say. Standards aren’t just for the team. Standards shape and define the culture. When the leader doesn’t submit to the same standards that are set for the team, expect a short tenure.
Comparison is Dangerous
When a leader starts comparing the results to previous leaders, previous periods or others in the same role, then turbulent times are ahead. The only comparison that matters is results vs. expectations. It doesn’t matter how the business is doing compared to the competition, compared to last year or even last quarter. The only competition that matters is the one we’re having with our stated goals.
Comparison is a distraction tactic. When leaders take this path it’s a clear sign of inattention to results, of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions Of A Team.
The Cost of Losing the Narrative
Michael Burcham once told me “when you lose the narrative with the customer, then you’ve lost the narrative with the board.” When coaches lose the narrative with their fan base and leaders lose the narrative with the team, they are toast. Make no mistake every leader has customers. A leader might have external customers, and yet every good leader will tell you his primary customer is his team. When you lose your voice with the team, you will certainly lose the trust of the executive team.
You lose the narrative when you abandon standards and fail to meet expectations. When you start settling and comparing the results to landmarks other than the company’s stated goals, you will lose your team.
Gus Malzahn is a good coach and he will quickly find another job. Experts say he is better than most of his colleagues and that he is one of the best coaches on the market. The lesson is that better than most isn’t good enough for excellent teams. Good leaders lose their post when they make these mistakes. Exercise some self-awareness and evaluate how you’re doing in these three areas.