Authors: Steve Sullivan
♦ People liked to be led.
♦ They will decide who they will follow.
♦ Their effort sprouts from emotion.
In its simplest form, leadership is about looking out for someone else. The people
that are following you aren’t dumb. They know, through your actions, whether their
welfare is at the forefront of your thoughts. You can’t fake it. And when your followers
determine you are doing right by them, they will do right by you. With leadership,
dreams are fulfilled.
In 1966, none were. There were lots of reasons. The
non-leader in me would like to point a finger but the leader in me accepts responsibility.
It was my job to get it done and I didn’t. My guys wanted a championship. I gave them
a black eye. As their leader I failed. End of story.
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about leadership. I believe it is at the
heart of performance. I didn’t always know that. When I first began coaching I read
all the books, I memorized techniques, I focused on strategy. Tactics were my thing.
My X-ing and O-ing was as good as it gets.
What I didn’t understand initially was that all of that meant nothing if I couldn’t
get my players to elevate their effort.
I used to think leading was easy. I’ve changed my mind. If leading was easy we wouldn’t
have political unrest, business debacles, and armed insurrection. If leading was easy,
insolence would be passé, bad guys would be good and good guys would be better. If
leading were easy I’d still have a wife.
Leading is not easy. Taking a group to a higher level has never been easy. Understanding
how it happens is very easy. We all know that leadership has changed the world. I’ve
never seen any situation in any environment that wasn’t made better with leadership
and worse without it. Over the years I’ve wondered why people don’t lead. Given the
link between leadership and success and non-leadership and failure, why wouldn’t anyone
in a leadership position lead? I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a variety
of factors—fear of failure, ignorance, apathy, and the burden that accompanies fulfilling
expectation. Being asked to make a team victorious can be daunting.
People that follow you want to win. Victory has a nice ring. Thinking you may not
be able to give it to them could make you hesitate. I read a quote once that I’ve
On the plains of hesitation lie the bones of countless millions, who at the dawn of
victory chose to wait and in their waiting, died
I’d like to give credit to whoever said that but I don’t know the name. I’d like to
thank him because the words are accurate.
In leading others, action is what matters. Action is the catalyst. Thinking about
something is fine. Talking about it is nice. But only through action will one of two
things happen. You will fail or you will succeed. Either way, you win. Failure will
make you smarter. Success will make you stronger. So when you act, there is always
a benefit. It may not be immediate but then life is not three innings.
Over the years, I’ve encountered people who are slaves to the “what if” game. I believe
those are the two laziest words around. If you are asking yourself, “what if” then
it means you haven’t done anything.
If you have done something you will have your answer. You will know that what you
did was right or wrong. I had great expectations for the 1966 Hammond season. Sure
the talent on our squad had been cut in half but we still had the core of a team that
went undefeated. In all the key positions I had guys who had performed. There was
one guy I was a little worried about. He was my quarterback and a linebacker. I guess
that said something about his personality. It wasn’t that he couldn’t play he just
had an opinion about everything. He was the personification of the mouth that
roared. Good for calling plays but no coach wants to be scolded by an eighteen year
It seemed every five minutes he was critiquing my bread and butter. “Come on coach,”
he’d yell, “enough of this running stuff. Let’s put the ball in the air.” Periodically
I’d let him elevate. The results were always the same. At sixty yards he would put
a bullet on a receiver’s numbers. At forty yards he could knock ’em down. I was in
agreement with my coaching staff that he had an arm but disagreed with them that we
should employ it.
For a number of years my offense had served me well. It would again. I’d never been
a passing coach. That was a different game. Throwing on first and ten was uncharted
water and I didn’t want to go on the rocks. So I was afraid, afraid to change.
Because I believe that a willingness to change is so crucial to success, it demands
Doing what needs to be done under different circumstances.
In the course of getting down the road I never gave change much consideration. It
was probably because I was too busy changing. I thought a lot about kids. I thought
a lot about coaching. I never thought much about change. And I don’t know why, because
my life has been a never-ending series of changes. At the age of thirty-six I had
changed so much I sometimes wondered who I was. In the decade following my graduating
from college I was on the move. I’m still on the move. I’m ready to reinvent myself
again. At this stage I don’t know what that will be but I’m excited by the
thought that in the not too distant future I know my life will become different. How?
It doesn’t matter.
And so the first thing I would point out is that:
♦ Change is inevitable.
It is so understood that statement is a cliché. Whether it is by choice or by edict
you will have to change in your life. Maybe you’ve never given change much thought.
You might not realize how much change you’ve experienced. I suspect you’ve changed
more than you realize. And more change is coming. Accept it because it is change that
will deliver the unforeseen thrill.
You should also know that:
♦ Change comes unexpectedly.
There are those who believe change is essential and they are prepared to give it a
kiss. What I’ve found though is that many of these people believe change arrives on
the horizon riding a white horse and wearing a ten-gallon hat. You can’t miss it.
Emblazoned across its chest are the letters C-H-A-N-G-E. It’s on its way. You have
time to prepare. In reality, you open a door or turn a corner and there it is. “Hi,”
it says. “Here we go.” And if you aren’t ready you may say no.
♦ Change is disruptive.
It’s supposed to be. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be change. Change is about mixing
things up. Whether it is trouble-some
is up to you. Recognize that in the disruption lies alternatives and solutions that
will take you places you didn’t know existed.
Change is so necessary, so important, so life sustaining I’ve often wondered why so
many people resist it. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three reasons. Do
they look familiar?
Some people have been disengaged for so long their mind, their body, their spirit
has atrophied. When the need for change comes they just aren’t interested.
People who don’t understand what to do usually do nothing.
Change is notorious for taking us out of our comfort zone. It interrupts our life.
It forces us to be different. It mandates we operate with a new set of rules. That
can be frightening. I don’t know too many people who don’t hesitate when they encounter
something that scares them. But the difference between people who accomplish more
and those that accomplish less lies in the recognition that fear is never rewarded.
Overcoming it is.
Skiing is a great metaphor for life. Standing at the top of a double black diamond
looking down a run filled with ice-encrusted moguls, you wonder what to do. The inclination
is to sit back, go slow, and survive the event. The reality is, hesitation is seldom
rewarded. In skiing, the answer to fear is force. The same thing applies to change.
When change occurs you need to attack. Easier said than done. For people who have
had little change, change is a big deal. I won’t tell
you that it shouldn’t make you uncomfortable. It will. To this day change always grabs
my gut but then when I think about what change has done for me, I’m ready to do it
Seventy percent of coaching is getting players properly placed where they can be most
effective. I tried to avoid preconceived notions. A difficult thing. On the Titans
we had a young man who was in full bloom at seventeen. At 6′5″, 240 lbs he was a moose.
We thought we had the next Bubba Smith. We put him at defensive end. In a scrimmage
with the Girl Scouts he got buried. What a surprise. We played another game and he
got killed. I put him on the bench. A few weeks later I got a brainstorm. I decided
to give him a try at tackle. The difference between a two or three point stance made
all the difference. Why? It doesn’t matter. What is important is that the operative
word that led to victory was change. He went on to become an All-American and one
of the most recruited guys in the country.
In the course of getting to this point, my attitudes about things have undergone a
number of changes. To this day I find myself evolving in all aspects of my life. Maybe
Darwin had it correct. The survival of the species is predicated on its ability to
adapt. Surprisingly I’ve become more flexible with age.
In part, my evolution started after reading a story by Arthur Conan Doyle. The title
A Study in Scarlet
The main character, as you probably know, is Sherlock Holmes.
Let me paraphrase what happened. Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s assistant, was interested
in why Sherlock had such a profound knowledge in matters related to crime but when
it came to knowing things unrelated to crime, he was in the dark—a first-class dummy.
Watson was confused. One day Holmes explained it to him. “I see my brain as an attic.
I can store whatever I want. If I store too many things, when I go to look for something
that is important, it will be more difficult to find.”
It made sense. At that point in my coaching career maybe I had too much in my attic.
I’d read all the books. I had the facts. At least I thought I did. At the time I didn’t
know that a lot of experts have a self-serving interest in their sermon. Maybe the
real good stuff was not so good after all. For me, victories were becoming as hard
to grasp as a feather on a windy day. So I examined the hypothesis. Were there things
in my cerebral storage shed that were obstacles to progress? I concluded yes.
The next season, 1967, was greeted with hope and also a little skepticism. I was still
recovering from the emotional shock of a losing season but my success in coaching
track had helped rebuild my ego.
I didn’t have the hot shots from the previous year. This group was pretty much a team
of untested unknowns. There was something about them though that made me feel good.
My quarterback had graduated and my earplugs had been retired. The new guy that was
going to spearhead the offense was a plump, unassuming sophomore named John O’Connor.
He was a perfect example of the book and cover concept.
Looking at him you suspected he was the most valuable player at Pizza Hut. John O’Connor
wasn’t a cover boy but as an athletic talent he was terrific. And he could think.
And he could throw. And he could kick. And he was quiet. Thank God he was quiet.
I started, with the help of my coaches, to evaluate my players. It didn’t take long
to recognize that not only did I have a guy who could put the football down field
but Bob Stumpf could catch it.
It was time to change. Opportunity was knocking. I opened the door and attacked. The
air was filled with pigskin. The turnaround had begun. Our fans returned to the stands.
On Friday night no one was watching ice dancing. The gridiron was back in vogue. A
year later we won the Championship. Mistakenly, I got Coach of the Year.
The good times were punctuated on August 27, 1968, when my daughter Deidre was born.
Not only was she a great kid but she also turned out to be a great athlete.
In those two years I redefined who I was—as coach, as a leader, as a human being.
I learned that commitment transcended desire. Commitment had to be directed. Being
committed in the wrong areas would do nothing. Commitment was not a salve or a tattoo.
Commitment did not vanish with circumstance. Commitment was a force that resided within.
Commitment dictated results. Commitment was at the core of excellence.
I also learned that loyalty sprouted from integrity and integrity is at the heart
of a coach/player relationship. I learned so many things and I would need them all.
If you’re like me, you’ve spent some time thinking about who you are and why you’re
here. I’ll bet you even wonder where you’re going. I still do. And even though I’ve
given my journey considerable thought, I continue to struggle with what it all means.
Figuring this stuff out can make your head hurt.
Somewhere back when, I was investigating the meaning of Yoast. I knew I wanted to
achieve something but wasn’t sure what that meant. Big house, fast car, fifty dollar
bills. I’d been persuaded that if I didn’t have a pinky ring, I was a nobody. One
day I borrowed a friend’s. I didn’t feel any better.
Shortly thereafter I was reading a book about Albert Schweitzer. The story chronicled
the journey of a man who abandoned the “good life” for the good of others. There was
I do not know what your destiny will be but I do know this. The only ones among you
who will be truly happy are those that have sought and found how to serve
Something inside me came alive. Now all I had to do was figure out where to begin.
As I gave it some thought I was cascaded with options. I wanted to serve but didn’t
know how. I didn’t know who. I didn’t know where. What seemed so simple became complex.
I turned to a friend for help.