Great Leaders Develop Great Leadership Systems: Two Legendary Football Coaches



John RobinsonDon James coachDon James and John Robinson are legendary college football coaches. As a college coach John Robinson put up a winning percentage of 104-35-4. His teams at USC won four Rose Bowls and his 1978 team won a share of the national championship. In 2009 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He also coached the Los Angeles Rams professional team and was successful there as well.
Don James coached football at Kent State and the University of Washington and has a winning percentage of 178–76–3. His 1991 Washington team won a share of the national championship. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
Chuck Nelson was a place kicker for Don James during his collegiate career and for John Robinson for his first year of professional football. I recently had the privilege of hearing him talk about leadership and how these two coaches, both highly successful, developed totally different systems. Don James was the master of detail and precision. Under Coach James, Chuck knew at exactly what time during practice he would do his practice kicks and exactly how many kicks he would get (12). The system was designed to take as much risk out of the kick as possible. Under Coach Robinson, he had no idea when he would get his practice kicks nor how many. The system was designed to maximize risk so that a kick on game day would be easy. Obviously, both systems were highly successful.

I glean two lessons here. 1) leadership is not a one size fits all enterprise, and 2) leadership is more about the system than the person. Two highly successful coaches, two very different types of leadership but both systems were successful. My conclusion: great leaders develop great systems.

Leadership System and the Open Door Policy



Leadership Systems - Open Door Policy

An open door policy is a nice value. It only becomes part of a leadership system if it is built into the rules of the system.

Inc Magazine recently republished an article by Gary Vaynerchuk titled: Why My Door is Always Open. According to his LinkedIn page, Gary is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and co-founder of VaynerMedia, a full-service digital agency servicing Fortune 500 clients across the company’s 4 locations. He is also a sought after public speaker, a venture capitalist, 4-time New York Times bestselling author, and an early investor in companies such as Twitter, Tumblr, Venmo and Uber.

In his article, which is really rather good, Gary speaks to the value of the CEO having an open-door policy. As I read the article I was struck with the dichotomy of my last CEO. His personal leadership skills, in many ways was off the charts. He was smart, respectful, engaging, passionate, and visionary. His understanding of leadership as a system was awful. In contrast to Mr. Vasynerchuk, he would arrive in the morning, immediately go into his office, shut the door, pull the internal window blinds and not come out until after lunch. Consequently, all but one of the senior leaders would do the same. As a senior project manager, I knew within days of starting that my time with his firm would short. The unspoken rule was, you don’t bother the CEO until after lunch and he opened his door. His other leaders just followed his lead. Team work and collaboration, two things desperately needed in a consulting business, was non-existent. While the senior leaders had been stable, the rest of the firm was a revolving door of smart people coming and going. When the COO called me after my resignation and ask why, I told her. Her response was why didn’t you say something? Really?

While an open-door policy is a nice touch for a CEO, it only turns into a system if her leaders and managers do the same. It must be built into the rules of the system and not just a value of the CEO. Contrast this to a small regional hospital in Western Washington. This CEO understands leadership as a system and in designing the system, one of the requirements is… all leaders will have an open-door policy. I have never seen an organization with greater team work and collaboration among competing disciplines. it is breath taking.

Link to the Inc article:

First Break all the Rules


Marines becoming an officer

Marine Corp Leadership Rule: Leaders Eat last

Every leadership system has them. Every organization has them. They are one of the three pillars of a leadership system. They are both formal and informal.  Bryce Hoffman, in his book: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company tells the story about Alan breaking an unofficial rule. The “rule” had been that everyone, including the CEO had to make an appointment to see the Chairman and schedule it through his assistant. Alan, as the CEO, thought this was silly so one day he just walked by the assistant and straight into the office of William Clay Ford, Jr.. He broke a standing rule and walked on the perceived power & control of the assistant. Rules are important, occasionally it is important that rules be challenged.

I asked my young Marine Corp nephew not long ago who eats last in the chow line. Without hesitation he said “the highest ranking officer”. This is the theme of Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. For the Marine Corp, this is a behavioral rule of their leadership system. Leaders eat last. Could this be a reason why the Marine Corps is one of the most successful organizations in the world in teaching leadership?

Marcus Buckingham, in his book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, recognizes two things: 1) organizations and systems come with a prescribed set of rules, and 2) great leaders, operating in a world of systems and a leadership system that is made up of rules, must frequently break those rules because they have the ability to destroy his or her personal leadership. This is so because, the system is mightier than the individual.

The Myth of Messianic Leadership


Subtitle: Great Leaders Develop Great Leadership Systems


Ford, another example of a failed leadership system

By anyone’s definition, Allan Mulally is an outstanding leader. He joined the Boeing Company right out of college in 1969. When he left in 2006 he was CEO and President of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. In September of 2006 he was named President and CEO of Ford Motor Company. He is credited with turning around a failing automotive company that had lost $30 Billion, 25% of its market share and was on the verge of running out of cash. In 2014 he retired after a very successful eight years. He was succeed by the Mark Fields, Chief Operations Officer, who held the post for three years until he was fired and Jim Hackett was hired.
So just looking at Ford from an outside perspective, Ford Motor Company was so lacking intelligent and capable leaders that it was forced to go outside their system, which included a high profile leadership development program, to hire a guy who had spent a career building airplanes. The new guy saved the company but then his successor was so stupid that he was fired after three years. The newest CEO is said to be more “visionary”. Instead of building a solid leadership system, it sounds like Ford is looking for another messianic savior. Their system of leadership is still a failure.
Mulally is credited with turning around the culture at Ford. Really? Then Fields must have destroyed because the value of Ford stock has been in decline since Mulally left. Maybe it is time corporate America stops looking for the next messiah and starts building leadership systems.

Mapping Strategy to the Leadership System



A smedicalleadershipprogram2mall rural healthcare system sees a significant opportunity to improve its its strategy map. Expertly design their strategy map is a simple one-page document illustrating their strategy for growth. It is posted proudly in their various “visibility walls” that provide staff, patients, and visitors graphical displays of leadership, performance, and strategy. Structured in a classical Balanced Scorecard (BSC) methodology it identifies Aspiring Cultural of Greatness, as the central theme of leadership (learning and growth perspective). Where many organizations are content to leave it at that, this rural hospital took their BSC to the strategic horizons. They determined that a leadership system needed to be designed that would in fact – create a culture where all staff aspired to be great – individually and organizationally.

Nearly a year in the making, it follows the structure of classical systems theory. It has 1) a central focus (empowerment), 2) critical elements leaders control; 3) routines & activities for leaders to follow, a clear system for deploying the system; and 4) three mission critical performance objectives. They will be able to measure the performance of both their leadership system and individual leaders with non-financial measures of performance. They will actually be able to measure how well individual leaders are doing empowering their staff!

What is so impressive, is that this focuses individual leaders on executing the requirement of the leadership system rather than gaining followers. In this organization, there is little room for the dynamic charismatic leader following a model of personal power and control. The entire leadership system is mapped to a growth strategy that will execute on the mission and vision. Furthermore, it will deliver mission and vision with an approach consistent with their values.