The best thing I saw last month is Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching on HBO. I know this isn’t exactly business-related, but I’ve always studied coaches just as much as I have business leaders. I find that I gain insights from them from a messaging, motivational, and even tactical perspective that I can’t get anywhere else.
Bill Belichick, the longtime coach of the New England Patriots, has reigned over the NFL for the last two decades, winning 6 Super Bowl titles. Nick Saban, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, has seen similar dominance in the college ranks, also winning 6 National Titles including one with LSU in 2003. The two coaches are longtime friends, and they get together once a year to catch up and talk strategy, gleaning all the wisdom they can from each other. This past year, they allowed HBO to film their conversations.
What has intrigued me most about both of these leaders is the utter consistency of performance. Their programs have had their ups and downs, but they’ve sustained such a long-term level of high achievement. They also are not super lovable figures that people organically flock to like a Dabo Swinney, charismatic coach of the Clemson Tigers, or the beloved late Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines.
So, how have they managed such success? Let’s dig a little bit into this hour-long show to get some insight.
One thing right off the bat that gave me a good chuckle (and made me feel so much better about myself) was that Bill asked the camera crew to leave the room for a little bit so that he and Nick could catch up privately before jumping into filming. As the narrator mentions, you would think that the conversation would be personal. But in fact, the coaches jump right into talking about how their teams played last season and about defensive strategy. I find that I struggle to go through the expected (and undoubtedly appropriate) small talk before jumping into the nitty-gritty; I almost always get too excited. This is something I know I have to work on, but it’s at least nice to see that I’m not alone in this.
Once the cameras are back on, Bill and Nick start talking ball for over 4 hours. A great nugget from this early part of the show is when Nick talks about guys from his program being drafted into the NFL, and he never even gets a call from the teams that pick them. He mentions that Bill is one of the only people that indeed does call him and gets his insight.
In sports, just like hiring in business, picking and recruiting the right players cannot be understated. Like Nick alludes to, it is insane not to turn over every stone and do every bit of diligence you can before bringing someone into your team. Many times, pride or sheer laziness gets in the way of that, and it is a cardinal sin for the successful. Nick also gives a great anecdote on his “comma and” and “comma but” comparison that is great to keep top of mind when listening to references.
In the next scene, you get a peek into their childhoods, where there is a multitude of parallels. Both are of Croatian descent; both of their fathers were tough-minded football coaches (Nick’s dad also owned a service station). They each credit their parents for teaching them the discipline, effort, and attention-to-detail that have significantly aided in their accomplishments as leaders.
“A lot of those things, growing up, you didn’t understand – Why do I have to do this? Players say all the time – We won the game, why do we have to do this over and correct it? Well, it’s because it wasn’t right.”
A few minutes later, Coach Saban talks about how studying psychology in college has helped him understand how mindset and habit play such a huge role in personal attitude and motivation. The footage showing him talking to his team about this is gold.
“It’s not about what you want; it’s about what you’re willing to do to get it.”
After several minutes of walking through the struggles and antiquated methods they had to employ to prepare for film study as young coaches, following their career paths as coaches, and the basis for their relationship and coaching partnership, the narrative shifts back to leadership philosophy around the 25-minute mark. Bill’s now-infamous creed “Do Your Job” is highlighted.
It’s such a simple message, but so powerful in execution. Nick says to Bill, “One of the things I liked most about working for you is that I knew exactly what you expected from me, and I worked other places, and that was never ever clearly defined. It’s amazing to me how many people work with or for someone, and it’s just assumed that they know what you’d like for them to do.”
This is something that hit me right between the eyes. Though I believe in clarity so wholeheartedly and evangelize consistently for leaders to make things clear for their team members, it is so difficult in practice, especially with small teams. We as leaders must continue to push ourselves and each other to do a great job in allowing our team members to function in the most clarity and purpose we possibly can, no matter how tumultuous business and production can be.
In that same vein, the coaches talk here about putting their players into positions to succeed and not asking them to do things they aren’t equipped to do well. It’s the leader’s job to adapt and to utilize personnel in a creative way rather than trying to shove square pegs into round holes continually. Once again, with small teams, this can be very challenging when the resources are so limited, and everyone has to wear multiple hats. Regardless of the realities, it’s always worth our best effort.
The next juicy nugget we can take away is about the mutual respect and consideration they’ve always had for each other, despite having been in some sort of competition with each other for much of their careers. The coaches commiserate on why some others they’ve been around don’t seem to understand that same level of consideration. For all of us in business, that is something that should always be top of mind, that we can compete for market share with every ounce of our being, and still care for and have proper esteem for our competitors, their missions, and their products/services.
After several more minutes of telling the respective coach’s stories, which as a football fan, I thoroughly enjoy, we get to the next piece of leadership gold at around the 45-minute mark.
“Nobody says they want to come in second but are they willing to do what the beasts do?”
Circling back to something that was said at the top of the show, and also pressing into what I mentioned at the top of this blog as to what intrigues me the most about these guys’ stories, this is where we dig in a little deeper into what it takes to continue to grow and achieve after you’ve experienced the pinnacle of success.
Nick explains his well-known hatred of complacency and his urgency to motivate his players to continue to focus on the process of improvement rather than their achievements, to keep them choosing to do the things that made them successful in the first place. Bill also mentions a critical anecdote, that he can never expect his teams or players to succeed when his expectations are greater than the team’s or players’. This is a simple yet powerful point that leans heavily into something we consistently talk about in the business world – employee ownership.
“High achievers don’t like mediocre people, and mediocre people don’t like high achievers.”
The “ball talk” is concluded by something that I can definitely empathize with and is quite on-brand from what I know of these two leaders. They lament about their failures as a leader and as a tactician that have caused anguish to those that trust them. This is by far the hardest part of being in any leadership position, but it’s also something that I think the best leaders have learned to put into proper perspective. None of us is perfect, none. No matter how much we care or how hard we try. We must have grace for ourselves in this matter. Hand Raised High
As the show concludes, there is a decent amount of time spent on how much these two great leaders believe that they are nothing without the players, assistant coaches, staff, and their families, who do most of the heavy lifting. They give all credit to those who deserve it most.
I admire that very much. It’s not just humility; it’s the damn truth. May we all live in that truth daily and not forget to say it out loud anytime we can.
If you’d like to watch this episode, you can find it right here.