Bo on Leadership

Bo_fordI posted at the time of Bo Schembechler’s death on Bo’s leadership ability. and demonstrated his Shakespearean-like inspirational ability through a transcript of his hair-raising speech on The Team. I’m sure that anyone who has played for Bo can attest to his extraordinary ability as a leader (any of those want to comment here?), and the audio on my previous post helps to demonstrate that.

A book co-authored by John U. Bacon on the leadership wisdom of Bo has just been released called Bo’s Lasting Lessons. Books on the wisdom of sports legends are usually a dime-a-dozen (as are books on the wisdom of famous CEOs), but if you believe that Bo’s coaching skills and knowledge can provide insight towards leadership in business—a point that I have made in my previous posts—then this book could be a worthwhile book to read.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that a successful sports coach can automatically be successful as a business leader, but I believe that they both share many similar qualities relating to running and inspiring a group of high-level achievers. Executives ignore the lessons from successful leaders at their peril, regardless of the arena in which those leaders performed. (Of course, this book is also a must for any Bo or Michigan fan, and it will probably help ease the pain of the beginning of the current football season and the end of the previous one.)

The following is an excerpt from the book, part of a larger excerpt posted on the Michigan Today website. It’s difficult to read Bo’s thoughts on respecting the institution that one inherits and not think about the mistakes made by Carly Fiorina at HP and other dominant CEOs who misunderstood the institution that they took over, or other CEOs and acquiring companies who ran roughshod over the history and culture of companies that they had acquired. Bo understood that corporate culture begins at the top, and he understood the need to respect the value of the team members that one works with. Echoes of his “the team, the team, the team” benediction resonates throughout this passage:

It’s one thing, when you start in a new position, to throw a bucket of cold water on your people to let them know things are going to be different around here from now on. That’s just smart.

But it’s something completely different to do the same thing to the institution you’re taking over. That’s just stupid!

Let me explain. One of the most common mistakes new leaders make—and I just can’t for the life of me understand this one—is to ignore the history of the organization they just took over, or even to disrespect it. That, to me, is the mark of a weak leader—and one who’s probably not going to last very long.

Let me be as clear as I can be about this: When you become the leader, do not start your reign by dismantling or ignoring the contributions of those who came before. The history of your organization is one of your greatest strengths, and if you’re new to the organization, it’s your job to learn it, to respect it and to teach it to the people coming up in your company.

Sure, it’s easy to appreciate Michigan’s football history—the best, I’d say, in college football. But even if I had gone to Wisconsin, they have a good history, too. Ditto North Carolina. In fact, anywhere I might have gone had to have some history, or it wouldn’t still exist! And that goes for any organization you might join, too…

I made a lot of mistakes, but one thing I got right, after we started having some success, was never once claiming that I alone had put that team together—because I hadn’t. And at no time did I ignore the guys who played here before I arrived, either. It was their tradition, not mine, that I was now in charge of, and I was going to show them I respected what they’d built here. That’s why a lot of those guys are my friends today, great guys like Bob Timberlake and Ron Johnson, who kept Michigan tradition alive before I ever showed up.

Remember this: WHEN YOU ARE THE LEADER, YOU ARE THE ORGANIZATION. You are the company, the school, the team. You are it. Now if you want to act like some kind of jerk where guys who worked for the program and led the program and sacrificed for the program are not welcome to come back—well, you’re not going to have much of a program. And you certainly won’t have a family. But if you respect your history, you’ll get a lot more in return.

When I coached at Ohio State and even at Miami, we had really good facilities. When I got here, I was shocked. Our locker room was on the second floor of Yost Field House. We sat in rusty, folding chairs and hung our clothes on nails hammered into a two-by-four bolted into the wall. Those were our "lockers"!

My coaches started complaining. "What the hell is this?" they said. "We had better stuff at Miami."

I cut that off right away. "No, we didn’t," I said. "See this chair? Fielding Yost sat in this chair. See this nail? Fielding Yost hung his hat on this nail. And you’re telling me we had better stuff at Miami? No, men, we didn’t. We have tradition here, Michigan tradition, and that’s something no one else has!"

And for those who really want to know what it means to respect the history that one inherits:

After we knocked off the unbeatable Buckeyes in 1969, it was my duty to give away the game ball. I had a lot of good choices. There was Garvie Craw, who ran for two touchdowns. There was Barry Pierson, our senior defensive back, who grabbed three interceptions that day, ran back a punt to the Ohio State three-yard line, and turned in one of the single greatest performances I’ve ever seen.

But once everyone quieted down, I asked Bump Elliott [the coach immediately prior to Bo] to come up, and handed the game ball to him. Everyone got choked up, including Bump. Some guys were out and out crying—and I don’t remember when I felt better about anything I’ve done in my entire life.

How many people who experience a CEO change or corporate acquisition are presented with that kind of respect for their company’s history and accumulated culture? And how many would have valued their newfound leadership so much more had they seen the kind of tribute made to the past that Bo made?

Read more about Bo’s Lasting Lessons and buy from Amazon here: