leadership

Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney: Two Opposite Approaches to Successful Leadership

Set! Hut. Hut. Hike! The college football season is almost here, bringing with it all of the excitement of tailgating and touchdowns. For the next few months, athletes across the country will be combining their talents with the hopes of winning a national championship. Behind every catch and tackle on the field is a foundation built of hours upon hours of practice and preparation. The architects of these training regimens are the coaches leading these teams, and no coaches are doing a better job of this right now than Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.

They’ve both led their teams to an incredible amount of consistent success.

They’ve both driven their players to reach new heights of excellence.

And they couldn’t be more different.

For Saban, leadership is all about a meticulous, unemotional commitment to a process. For Swinney, it’s about harnessing passion and living in the moment. And you know what? They’re both right.

In any workplace, from the gridiron to a cubicle, leaders are tasked with getting the very best out of their team, and that means balancing a lot of personalities and learning styles. Thankfully, there are lessons to be learned by two of college football’s greatest leaders. Before the first kickoff, consider how these seemingly opposite leadership styles can both lead to the same result on and off the field:

Nick Saban, Alabama:

“Success doesn’t come from pie-in-the-sky thinking. It’s the result of consciously doing something each day that will add to your overall excellence.”

Practice makes perfect, right? Nick Saban has taken this concept to the next level, instilling in his team a concrete commitment to doing the little things well on the way to a goal. His message to his players continually echoes the importance of every practice drill, rather than hammering home the importance of the ultimate goal – a championship. This process extends well beyond the field, as well, emphasizing the same attention to detail academically and personally. As one recent article put it:

“An Alabama insider remembers watching a game coached by Saban’s predecessor at Alabama, Mike Shula. After a game, the Alabama sideline was a mess, with crushed water cups and tape all over the ground. After Saban’s first game [at Alabama], I just happened to look at the sideline. It was pristine.’”

How could cleaning up used Gatorade cups ever relate to running a team in an office? If you’re employing the Saban style of leadership, no aspect of the journey towards success is too small. To achieve your goals, the team must be driven by a constant commitment to a well-defined process at all levels.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson:

“That’s been my word all year, love, and I said tonight we’re gonna win it because we love each other.”

When it comes to forming a genuine appreciation for his teammates, Dabo Swinney is “all in.” While Swinney also preaches gradual progress in order to achieve lofty goals, his commitment to crafting a unique culture with his team goes well beyond Saban’s stone cold consistency. With his emotions front and center, Swinney taps into his players potential by painting an optimistic vision for the future. His energy is contagious; who wouldn’t be pumped up after seeing their fearless leader bust a move?

For Swinney, relationships come first, and the rest will follow. He’s known for building webs of support within his organizations, coordinating regular huddles (known as Swinney Huddles) with professionals from across the organization – from assistant coaches to nutritionists. The idea is to form bonds on the way to success by breaking down barriers and not shying away from candid feedback. At the end of the day, Swinney doesn’t want his team to sweat the small stuff:

“You’re never going to be a great program if you lose a game and your season’s over and you act like the world’s coming to an end. None of the other games matter. That’s a bad attitude and you’re probably going to live a miserable life.”

Leadership can take a team to success along many different paths. For Saban, that path is paved with solid routine and a dispassionate demeanor; for Swinney, the road is built on relationships and an unapologetic enthusiasm. In any workplace, these seemingly opposing styles can be used at different times and may be occurring simultaneously across different teams.

As a leader, it’s up to you to decide when each style is most appropriate. Are you more of a Saban or a Swinney? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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