8 Points on Leadership with University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban

Nick Saban

Nick Saban

Nicholas Lou “Nick” Saban (born October 31, 1951) is an American college football coach and the current head coach of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Saban previously served as head coach of the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins and three other NCAA universities: LSU, Michigan State, and Toledo. Saban appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine & as “The Most Powerful Coach in Sports”. Saban has more than 150 wins on his career record as a collegiate head coach. In March 2012, he became the highest-paid college football coach in the country, with a salary of $5.3 million that will jump to close to $6 million by 2019. There is already a statue of him on the campus. The Alabama football team rakes in $77 million in revenue a year. Much of that money pays for non-scholarship sports; $6.5 million goes to academic programs. The team has a $30 million deal with Nike, one of the largest in sports.


The best football coaches transform their teams into reflections of themselves. During Bama’s win over Michigan, it was apparent that Nick Saban had done just that with the Crimson Tide. Alabama gets the little things right. They are not flashy. They are disciplined. They rely on an almost NFL-caliber offensive line, good running backs, a mistake-free quarterback, and a hard-nosed defense. Like their coach, they never take their feet off the pedals. Saban expects much out of his players, regardless of the score of the game. Witness his sideline dress-downs of second and third-string players for blown assignments well after the outcome of the game had long been decided. When asked how he’s able to consistently win in the competitive sport of football, Nick Saban shared these eight points on leadership.

8 Points on Leadership:

Coach Nick Saban

Coach Nick Saban

1. You have to be willing to serve.

Great leaders are great servers. Every time I hear the term “servant leader,” I always think, “Well that’s redundant. Is there any other kind of leader?” Serving is what great leaders do, and it was something that was beat into our heads in leadership classes at the Naval Academy. This means shunning the Hollywood caricature of military-style leadership (you’ll follow my barked orders immediately if you want to keep your job!) and opting instead for real leadership through serving. Look out for the best interests of your people; give them the tools and the training they need to perform their best. Help them be successful in your system. When they win, you win.

2. You have to be willing to set an example.

This is one of the toughest things for a leader to embrace. If you want men and women of integrity working for you, you need to be a man or woman of integrity. If you want people to work hard, you need to work hard. If you want your team to give their best, their very best, you need to give your very best, and your employees know if you are or you aren’t. I’ve had enough conversations with junior people in organizations to know that your employees are finely-tuned hypocrisy detectors. Don’t ask your employees to do something or be something that you aren’t willing to embrace for yourself.

3. Inspire others by making an impact.

If you’re willing to set an example, then you can inspire others. “There’s a big difference between impressing your people and impacting your people,” Saban told me. “Impressing people is easy if that’s all you want to do.” If you want to make an impact and inspire others, your actions are paramount.

4. Focus on being your best, not on winning.

When asked about his focus on winning, Saban told us, “We don’t talk a lot about winning; instead, we talk a lot about being the best we can be.” One of the advantages of being focused on being your best, rather than on winning, is that being your best is the only thing you can really control. Your competition isn’t just going to roll over and surrender just because you are focused on winning. This scene from “Facing the Giants” is a great illustration of the concept. The other advantage of getting your employees to give you their best, instead of winning at all costs, is that it can help keep your team from making unethical choices.

5. Be positive.

There are a number of ways to motivate people, and one of them certainly is through fear (e.g. you’ll lose your job if you don’t perform), but Coach Saban prefers being positive. He told me that being positive is the best way to “help your people believe in what they can accomplish and give them something to strive for.” Note that I wrote “prefers being positive.” Saban was very clear that different people are motivated differently, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always work out. “I have to take the time to understand each of my players and give them the push that they need,” he said. What do you think? Are you negative most of the time when it comes to motivating your employees (i.e. “you’ll work hard because you’ll lose your job if you don’t”). I’m not telling you to change your approach, but if knowing his people well and being positive has worked for Coach Saban, maybe it will work for you, too.

6. You can’t make people do things.

When I asked him about managing people, Saban said, “I don’t think you can manage people. You can’t manipulate people into being their very best. What we do is define our expectations for everyone on the team academically, athletically, and personally. If they meet those expectations, it will enhance things for them in the future. So, we hold every player accountable for meeting the expectations we have for them in those three areas.” If someone shows an unwillingness to meet those expectations, he won’t last on the team. Ultimately, Saban sets the structure in which he expects his team to operate and he provides direction. How each team member will perform is his own choice. In your business, you can do the same thing by setting performance objectives, and establishing the associated metrics, for each of your team members. If they meet or exceed those objectives, you’re on the road to bringing out the best out of your people. If they don’t, then you can either review the metrics to make sure they are the right ones, train your people to achieve them, or invite them to find a new position where they might excel (inside or outside the company).

7. Your team has to buy in to your vision.

Accomplishing something great through a team requires buy-in. “Your people have to buy in to what you are trying to accomplish,” Saban told me. “They need to embrace your dream, your vision.” He added: “You also can’t demand buy-in. You simply can’t force a person to buy in to your vision. Rather, you need to command buy-in through your actions and your example. You need to be someone your team can emulate.” It’s my experience that vision implementation, also known as a strategy, is poor in most companies. Visions are poorly crafted, even more poorly implemented, and little effort is invested into getting buy-in. This isn’t surprising, given the fact that most of the vision statements I have seen in my life were decidedly uninspiring. Saban confirmed, however, that a solid vision that everyone embraces can separate organizations that win from those that are mediocre. This isn’t as it easy as it sounds; the vision needs to be something that you earnestly want to achieve, and you need to be willing to go all-in to make it happen. If you don’t invest in it, if you don’t hire and fire based on it, and if you ever act in contradiction to it, you won’t achieve it. No one will believe that you really want it.

8. Caring is the most important thing.

Our final question referenced the movie “City Slickers“: When asked if he could share just one thing about successful leadership, what would it be? Without pausing, he said, “Caring. People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” There’s a risk that you may dismiss that as a simple slogan, but successful leadership always starts with caring about your people. What does that mean in practice? Perhaps it’s taking the time to get to know them better, or making the effort to have each employee feel like part of the team. Certainly it’s being responsive to requests associated with the quality of their tools, working environment and training needs. It also includes applying discipline and saying “no” to requests that are not good for the employee or the company.

Want to get better at leading your team to win? Embrace the eight points that Saban shared with me, and be a man or woman of great character, both on and off the field.


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