3 Lessons Leaders Can Learn from Coach Dabo Swinney

There is something powerful about learning via sports metaphors because our brains are wired to make connections. Metaphors engage and help us understand concepts quickly. The world of sports is ripe with stories that exemplify leadership and teamwork. Dabo Swinney provides an excellent example of a coach who demonstrates leadership skills relevant to a leader in any field.  

In case you don’t follow college football, let me tell you a little bit about Dabo Swinney…

Coach Swinney is Clemson University’s head football coach. Dabo led his team to win 2 out of the last 3 college football national championships in 2016 and 2018. He is quickly becoming the best coach in college football, passing Nick Saben at Alabama. Dabo is the second-most winningest coach to date in Clemson’s history and will likely become the coach with the most wins in Clemson’s near future. 

Here are three lessons all leaders can learn from Coach Swinney:

1. Give everyone on the team opportunities to grow.

Dabo gives every player a chance to play at least once a season. This is almost unheard of, especially for a power-house team like Clemson.  Most walk-ons never see playing time. Yet, Coach Swinney gives every walk on a chance to play at least once in the season. In fact, he was a walk-on when he played at Alabama so he can empathize with these players and knows how hard they work.  He wants to reward their effort and give them an opportunity to stretch their skills.  

Sometimes leaders focus mostly on their high-performers, giving them special assignments and opportunities.  Leading with a growth mindset involves seeing potential in everyone. Providing all employees with stretch assignments and projects to learn and develop skills will empower and excite everyone on the team. 

2. Be authentic with your feedback.

Clemson’s star Quarterback Trevor Lawrence chose Clemson because he appreciated Dabo’s honesty.  When Trevor was an underclassman, Coach Swinney wouldn’t offer him a scholarship although almost every big school in the country did including Alabama and LSU. Trevor appreciated the fact that Coach Swinney was honest with him.  Often players are promised playing time or scholarships during recruitment to get them to sign early, but these don’t always materialize. The coach’s truthful and candid feedback won over Trevor because he believed he could trust this coach.

It’s not uncommon for leaders to shy away from direct and constructive feedback because it can be uncomfortable to give.  When the feedback is vague or diluted, the team member remains unconsciously incompetent. Also, if the feedback is inflated or unbalanced, it can create skepticism in the employee. Leaders need to provide authentic, direct, and fact-based feedback with the intention of developing people.

3. Rally a team through a common goal.

Coach Swinney creates a fun but competitive environment within the team and all his players really respect him.  In 2018, his team was so excited about the possibility of winning another national championship that many players, including first-round picks Christian Wilkinson and Clelin Ferrel, were willing to pass up their shot in the NFL draft where they had the potential to make millions of dollars. Instead, they wanted to play for Dabo and to have a chance to win the national championship (which they won)!

Leaders are the primary reason employees choose to stay or leave an organization.  So, creating an environment where people rally round a common goal is going to motivate people to stay.  Leaders need to pose goals in a way that the employees can see what’s in it for them. This buy-in creates engagement and excitement that are hard to walk away from.

Conclusion

Coach Dabo Sweeney is a great example of how one leader’s behaviors can positively impact a team and create a team culture that is both positive and highly-productive.  First, be sure to give all team members development opportunities. Second, provide feedback that is genuine and helpful. Third, get the team to buy into a goal that they are personally excited about.

About the Author: Leigh Ann Rodgers, Founder of Better Teams, is an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator with 20 years of experience in the human development field. Leigh Ann is a skilled meeting facilitator, trainer, and coach working across the globe to help leaders cultivate teams that are highly productive and positive. Learn about her Better Teams Model and Team Assessment here.


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