Gator leadership lessons

I’ve long been drawn to examples of leadership – good and bad – and shouldn’t be surprised at the variety of places we find any of those. However, here in Gainesville, thanks to the leadership of the last few athletic directors, we’ve been granted a front-row seat to some of the best leaders in college coaching.

We’ve seen too many coaches and too many examples for the purposes of this article, so I’ll just highlight two aspects of leadership that are critical: vision and culture.

Neither concept is anything new. Vision was highlighted by Solomon in the Old Testament (without it the people perish, Proverbs 29:18). Since then, it’s been a hot topic for consultants and gurus, and with good reason. Vision forms the goalposts (for those of us prone to using sports metaphors), the distant sight giving us purpose and direction. Where we’re headed.

As part of that, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of incremental goals.  The goalposts are off in the distance. We may be getting closer. But not every play can or should focus on the final outcome. Rather, it’s important to stay focused on the details, the moments of life right in front of us. String enough together, and the goalposts are closer, clearer.

As Steve Martin once said, the key to success is to set up intermediate goals to give a feeling of accomplishment and build momentum, then once those are accomplished, to move on to tackling larger goals. For him, that meant first becoming the Master of Time, Space and Dimension, and then after that…getting his own apartment.

Steve Spurrier used stepped goals with us in college. Before he revolutionized the way people see Florida football, he was my college coach for my first three years at Duke University, and before the first season began he set out a series of goals for us:

  1. Beat North Carolina.
  2. Finish with a winning record.
  3. Go to a bowl game.
  4. Win the Atlantic Coast Conference.

There may also have been something in there about academics: I wasn’t really paying attention. I was probably in the weight room when he was talking about that.

My freshman year we only accomplished the first goal. My sophomore year we reached the first two. (And but for a lousy call against NC State, probably the third. I know, I know: Let it go, Louie.) My junior year, all of the above. No, really.

While we were disappointed in Durham to lose Coach Spurrier to the Gators, I took solace in two things: he was headed to my hometown, and with him we’d beaten UNC every year. After Coach arrived in Gainesville, he immediately began implementing the same system of stepped goals, ultimately leading Florida Football to levels it had never reached before.  

Compare the incremental approach to those NFL teams I know of whose only goal is to win the Super Bowl. What a great recipe for creating a sense of failure, at least for the thirty-one teams not in New England.

The second concept is culture. As Thomas Carlyle said, “The great law of culture is: Let each become all that he was created capable of being.” (I might know who Carlyle is or was if I’d paid more attention to Coach’s academic goals.)

I first met Bryan Shelton in the Gainesville Airport a few years ago while waiting for my flight to depart. I greeted long-time friend Phil Pharr as he deplaned, and he grabbed a fellow passenger from his flight.  

Phil introduced me to Bryan Shelton, the Florida men’s tennis coach, and he started to explain to Bryan what I did for a living, but Bryan interrupted.

“Sure, I know about Nathan. I’ve read all of his books with Tony Dungy.”

Keep in mind as the “with” guy in authoring books, my name is appropriately in tiny print on the cover. In ten years of writing, only one other person has responded like Bryan upon meeting me. So I immediately liked Bryan.

As I’ve come to be around Bryan and the tennis team since that time, I’ve been struck not only by his good taste in reading materials, but his leadership abilities.  

One of those abilities, that I’ve come to believe is critically important, is the importance of culture.

Bryan had taken over a top-twenty program, not a dumpster fire. But Jeremy Foley, Florida’s long-time athletic director, saw even greater potential for the program. Jeremy certainly focused on a vision of excellence in his tenure, and thought Bryan, who’d won a national championship as the head women’s tennis coach at Georgia Tech, could create a sustainable program of excellence.

Bryan’s first couple of years were more challenging than they might have been. He took a long view, and moved ahead without key players from prior seasons. Addition by subtraction, creating a culture of team and interdependence, no small feat in an individual sport. Each season has gotten progressively better, including an SEC Championship in 2016, a season in which Bryan was named SEC Coach of the Year.

More importantly? The culture still works. The on-court success parallels off-court success and the complete development of student-athletes.

As long as they’re listening, and not always in the weight room.


By Nathan Whitaker

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