Authors: Steve Sullivan
I was going through an airport one day and it caught my eye. I owned some Intel stock
and couldn’t believe my CEO
was paranoid. Sybil was paranoid. Rasputin was paranoid. Richard Nixon was paranoid.
But Andy Grove? I had to buy it to see if I should dump the stock.
The concept behind his dissertation was if you aren’t paranoid you are never examining
what you’re doing. You are never looking over your shoulder. One day you awaken and
the “boogieman” has taken you down. Paranoia forces you to constantly evaluate where
you are. And it is that assessment that ultimately makes you better.
I guess I’ve always been a little paranoid. Maybe insecure is a better word. The formative
years had an impact and mine were anything but ego building. I have regrets but then
I can also see the upside. When I knew I didn’t have the answer I turned to others
Early on, I thought I could identify who was an asset. I figured I could spot the
talent. What I’ve learned over the years is that I’ve seldom been able to determine
who can get the job done until I’ve given them an opportunity to perform. Facilitating
the process means everyone gets a chance because it is opportunity that is the catalyst
for performance. People who have never been given an opportunity are thirsty for a
chance. When it comes, they have been known to seize the moment and perform at astonishing
levels. Juvenile delinquents have become Medal of Honor winners. The down and out
have risen to greatness.
Building a team involves capturing the collective talent of a group: big ones, small
ones, dark ones, tall ones. Throw in
some thick heads and smarts guys as well. Diversity means you will employ a cross
section of talent.
My daughter Angela moved to California. She fell in love with an oil field worker.
They moved back to Virginia and because there was no black gold, he found himself
unemployed. Rick Garrison had initiative so he went to plumbing school. Whenever they
came over he talked about plumbing and pipes. I yawned. I wanted to discuss FOOTBALL!
I was about ready to ask Angela to trade him in when a major winter storm hit the
area. My pipes froze and burst. The Virginia Plumbers Association estimated a week.
Five minutes later the most beautiful guy on earth showed up and fixed the problem.
I still fall prey to stereotypes. I forget that a lot of people are acting. I still
believe I can spot the winner. And then when I least expect it, I’m surprised again.
I was on a speaking tour when I stumbled into a restaurant. I had few hours to kill
and thought I might do a little sight seeing. I didn’t know much about the area so
I figured I’d get some input from a local expert. There he stood next to the cash
register: Physically fit, clean-cut, expensive shoes, beautiful tie, and Armani suit.
He was obviously an intelligent businessman. I approached and asked if he could give
me some information. A frown appeared, a vacant sign showed up in his eyes. He confessed
he knew nothing. He was innocent. He pleaded for me to retract my question. His mother
told him not to talk to strangers. He asked if he could be excused.
I granted the request.
A teenager sitting in a booth nearby heard my question. In an instant she was in my
face—purple hair, no suit, sandals,
beads, a spike through her nose and tattoo on her cheek. “What do you need to know?”
she asked. I was a little intimidated. I was innocent. Thank God my mom had told me
to talk to strangers. I gave her my request and she gave me back an encyclopedia worth
of information. Once again I’d been fooled.
I’ve been fooled so many times I now have an operational directive.
They’re seldom accurate and always incomplete. When I joined the Air Commandos I remember
standing in formation. I looked to the left. I thought it was a casting call for
Beach Blanket Bingo
. Beautiful dudes and muscles too. I gazed to the right. How’d they get in? I wondered.
I knew who would make the cut. I was wrong. On graduation day everyone wanted the
commandos to fight but no one wanted a picture. Experience has taught me more often
than not that people are the inverse of their facade. So now I’m a “show me” kind
of guy. If you’re acting, I’ll find out.
As a coach you will always be venturing into unfamiliar territory. The good news is
what is unknown to you, is known to someone else. One brain is good. Many brains are
better. Listen up. Pay attention. Don’t take offense that someone is trying to help.
Their motive may be noble. Their
input may be accurate. Accept it, digest it, let it ferment, and then put it under
a microscope. If you find it’s healthy, employ it and if not, put it in your cerebral
storage shed for another time. On occasion you may want to flush it away.
When you assume a leadership position you can’t help but have biases. It’s part of
being human. Just keep those biases in check. Adopt an attitude that everything is
fair game. Encourage access. Solicit feedback. When you do, everyone will know that
you view them as an asset and they will become one.
One of our toughest competitors over the years was Washington and Lee High School
The school drew from a large area and as a result they always had talent and size.
They also played a wide six defense. In that formation, the defensive tackle lined
up against the offensive guard. In Jimmy Locher’s case it meant he was trying to block
a 250 pound behemoth. For all his desire, it wasn’t working. He suggested we flip
the guard and tackle. That way our big tackle would block their big tackle. In a wide
six there was no one on the tackle so he would be free to block a linebacker. I had
trouble making the adjustment because my mind was in a rut. I was handcuffed to the
past. Thank goodness he was a salesman and convinced me to try it. I did and it worked
beautifully. We won the game and from then on, every time I encountered a wide six
I employed the “Locher Plan.”
Was Jimmy Locher responsible for us winning the Regional Championship? What do you
I learned from that experience and employed the knowledge a few years later. It was
the beginning of the Titan season and there were a number of reasons why I wasn’t
most popular coach around. One of them had to do with color. A number of our Titans
hung with the Black Panthers and had adopted an attitude that white wasn’t even good
on milk. I was the defensive coach and having one of my stars, Julius Campbell, think
I was the devil was no way to bond.
Julius was a terrific player but had an attitude that stunk. One day watching game
films I asked Julius what he thought. He turned to me and grumbled something about
why would I care what he thought. I told him he was a smart guy and I needed his help.
A few days later on the practice field he came up and asked if I was serious about
wanting his input. I responded that I did. He gave me a mouthful. I employed some
of it and it worked. I got results and turned my naysayer into an advocate.
One year I had a running back that I thought was terrific. Statistics proved differently.
At the end of the season I sat down with him and we tried to figure out what was wrong.
We determined my play calling did not suit his running style. It was too specific.
He was a dutiful follower. When the play called for him to hit the hole, he did. Just
as instructed. If the hole was filled he went nowhere. When the season was over he
finally spoke up. There must have been something in my coaching style that inhibited
his input earlier on. He asked me if I would just let him go where he saw daylight.
I thought that was a good idea. The next season I told him he was free to go wherever
he wanted. It was in his hands. That season ended and he had become one of the top
rushers in the state.
I facilitated the process by doing nothing more than letting
him do what he knew best. I’ve been punished when I denied people freedom and I’ve
been rewarded when I took the bridle off.
Lots of kids get in trouble as they enter their teens. All their lives their parents
were in charge. They were told what to do and how to do it and for good reason. You
don’t learn in a vacuum. But at some point after those lessons have been learned and
knowledge gained, a child wants to experiment. They are ready to make their own decisions.
If you don’t let them, at best you inhibit growth but even worse, you set the stage
Patrick Henry understood the importance of freedom. If he couldn’t have it he’d rather
In coaching, you teach your athletes what to do but at some point they have to do
it on their own. They have to make decisions. When you interject yourself into every
scenario you take away their ability to think and I’ve never seen a thoughtless athlete
take home the gold.
Perception is everything. In the relationship-building business, perception governs
conduct. Who you are is one thing. What people think you are is more important. People
respond to what they see. Perception is the driving force behind behavior. Recognize
that you may know who you are but others don’t. Most people carry a basket of suspicions.
For good reasons. Their life before you was not a walk on
the yellow brick road. Anyone who has been mistreated, betrayed, or let down remembers
In leading a team, when you exhibit the same behaviors you seek in others you’ll create
an impression you’re okay. If you want discipline, courage, honesty, teamwork, dedication,
and loyalty, you should display discipline, courage, honesty, teamwork, dedication,
I’m not sure why so many leaders struggle with the concept. For me, doing what I wanted
done always made sense. It’s tough getting to any championship. The pain, the suffering,
the hardship are an ever-present reality. Frequently your players will question the
essence of the person who introduced the misery. If you have influenced the proper
perceptions they will come to the conclusion that you ask no more of them than you
demand of yourself.
When I first started coaching I didn’t understand the power of confidence. I wanted
to make my players stronger, faster, and smarter. As an empirical guy I liked the
fact that those attributes could be measured. Confidence was intangible. I knew it
was important but wasn’t sure why. I never would have guessed that a principle component
of my coaching philosophy would come as the result of lemonade.
I’m sure you’ve noticed every summer the entrepreneurial spirit is born. Across America
a million kids convince mom to help them earn gum money. On the surface, there doesn’t
appear to be all that much to it. Some may think that but
others have a different understanding. A friend told me a story.
The first time his kids went out to sell lemonade he realized there were issues at
play that transcended making a buck. In reality, selling lemonade is a very big deal.
It’s about quality, salesmanship, delivery, distribution, and pricing. Selling lemonade
is about success and failure. The last thing he wanted his kids to experience was
the rejection that was felt when you complete a three-hour tour of duty and your pitcher
is full. He decided to eliminate the possibility of that happening. It was pretty
easy. His kids sat on the sidewalk and he positioned himself around the corner five
blocks away. Every potential customer that was moving in their direction was stopped
and given a quarter to buy a cup. Everyone was excited to participate. Who wouldn’t
want to get free lemonade and help a kid too? They understood who was going to pay
their Social Security. An hour went by and he decided to see what his kids were doing.
As he walked up he could see the enthusiasm on their faces. They were excited. They
were yelling. They were jumping. They were winning. He attributes that the confidence
they gained on that day helped set a foundation to a lifetime of success. It cost
7.25 and it was the best investment he ever made.
I know that there are people who might hear that story and question the merit of the
father’s actions. They might say if there was no failure, that’s not the real world.
Some might suggest if the kids found out that their dad had a hand in their success,
they would believe their success was a sham.
I guess there are lots of ways to look at anything. There was a time I overplayed
the “what if” game—upside, downside,
inside, outside. And when I did I could always find a reason for doing nothing. I
no longer do. I now use one criterion. I ask myself whether my action will make someone
better. If the answer is yes, I do it. If I erred in my assessment I correct the situation
and move on.
As a coach, my responsibility is to help people improve. The process is linear. Winning
starts with preparation: physical, mental, and emotional. It’s followed with application.
People who are prepared want to apply their new ability. Let them. Help them.