A commentary on Nick Saban’s book

I picked up a copy of Nick Saban’s book last week. I read it and was struck by the positive, optimistic tone it struck. I had been reading Machiavelli as I work on a commentary on the First Ten Books of Livy, so the contrast in view was highly interesting. Here are a few random thoughts after a first reading. You can get a copy at Amazon: How Good Do You Want to Be?: A Champion’s Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in Life

Nick Saban’s How Good Do You Want to Be?: A Champion’s Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in Life provides a useful look into the personality and motivations of the Alabama Crimson Tide coach. Reading his book is like an extended Saban press conference, without the coach’s bristling. The details of his youth, his admiration for his parents and his methodology are all contained within its pages, and almost everything in the book has been covered in one of his public talks. But the book provides more illumination as it draws lessons from Saban’s personal and professional development—you can see his philosophy unfold over the years and through the pages.

Saban’s book reads less like Niccolo Machiavelli’s the Prince, and more like a tribute to democracy and personal liberty. Saban’s book is a kinder and gentler version of the Prince. Fans and enemies of Saban no doubt would quickly seize on that description as some type of insult. However, it is a compliment. Machiavelli is one of the most profound thinkers in Western civilization. He was a man determined to look past the grandiose theories of how man should be and instead focused only on how man really is. Both men pursue two distinct paths to success: exhortation from Saban and control from Machiavelli. Saban is not as pessimistic as Machiavelli, and his positive view of mankind is easy to find in the pages.

“To me there is good in all people,” Saban wrote (p. 196). Saban attributes this outlook to his rearing and travels.

That view contrasts with Machiavelli who provided an eloquent summation of mankind. “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit.” (p. 96)

Writing in 1536, John Calvin would construct a similar view of mankind describing the children of Adam as “perverse, corrupt and lacking any good.”

In other words, man is selfish. Most can agree on that. We see it everyday, but a good leader understands this, and will use it. According to Saban, “I am not naive enough to think that the young men who play at LSU are simply there because they love competing. Some are motivated by the promise of riches in the NFL, while others are motivated by the chance for a free education. These reasons are extrinsic.” (Saban, p. 163)

Saban wishes man to be internally motivated, but understands that what we wish is not always what is. It is a pragmatism worthy of Machiavelli.

Saban does not say it, but we could summarize this passage on motivation as saying greed can be turned to the good of the organization. Of course Saban tempers his message by warning that leaders cannot simply view players or employees as resources—they are individuals. “To be a true leader, you must recognize this principle and embrace the individuality of each member of your organization.” Saban points to decisions of athletes to turn pro early. In the last few months, Saban has said only good things about Andre Smith’s decision to enter the NFL draft, but you have to know Alabama would be a better team with Smith playing next year.

Saban promotes the individual like the football player Smith, and wants his subordinates to grow. In fact, he calls it his “obligation” to help them grow. This can result in staff members taking new jobs (or in some cases getting fired). Most businessmen would view turnover as a bad thing, or at least a nuisance. Not Saban. In his book he claims, new people bring “new ideas and enthusiasm to the job.” (Saban, p. 132)

Saban’s commitment to subordinates is difficult for many leaders. In history or even at work, there could be thousands of examples where leaders seize credit for the work of employees or belittle employees in an attempt to keep them locked on staff. But, great generals can share credit and help their inferiors without diminishing their own star. The greatest general in history, Publius Cornelius Scipio praised the work of his lieutenants in reports to the Senate.

“It was characteristic of Scipio that he was unstinting if his praise of Silanus…This task Lucius carried out successfully, and Scipio’s nature is again instanced in the record that he commended Lucius with the highest praise, representing the capture of Orinx as equal in importance to his own feat at Cartagena.” (A Greater Than Napoleon, p.54)

Saban is more circumspect in his praise of players than Scipio was in praise of his lieutenants, but when he singles a player out for praise there is a reason behind it—to reward good behavior.

Saban has other tools at his disposal to motivate players to work together for the good of the team. Saban is a coach reputed to be a dictator; however, in his book Saban praises democracy. The Nicktator advocates sharing power with the players.

“The most effective teams or organizations are those in which all the m embers have a say in the direction of the group…Dictatorships don’t rally the masses as democracies do. Now, life is not always a democracy (and neither, of course, is a football team), but allowing individuals power strengthens the foundation.” (Saban, p.110)

The positive view of man, and a belief that man can through shared responsibility improve himself show’s Saban’s path to dominance: exhorting man to do his best. Machiavelli’s path to dominance is controlling man, bending him to the will of the prince. Both have the same goal, success, but they take slightly different approaches.

The largest area of difference between these two paths can be seen in Saban’s rejection of fear as a motivational or tool of discipline. Fear of consequences is mostly fear of failure in sports or business, according to Saban. This type of fear can be “paralyzing.” Such tactics used by football coaches or business executives promotes “insecurity, lack of confidence, anxiety and frustration.” (Saban, p.74)

Saban’s rejection of this method isn’t due to its lack of efficacy. He admits fear can achieve desired results. “This method of intimidation and manipulation works extremely well in creating discipline—it’s used in military training all the time—but in my estimation, it doesn’t work with today’s young people.” (ibid)

The military is a strong example that fear of consequences is a strong motivator. The Royal Navy displayed the Articles of War on each ship, and captains would read the articles to the crew. Fear of flogging had a salutary effect by creating good order and disciplined crews committed to duty.

Saban constructs a line between discipline and punishment. Last year Saban discussed this difference at length when Alabama was engulfed in off-the-field troubles with player arrests. “You want to discipline people so they act properly next time. Punishment just makes them suffer.” (Saban, p. 165)

Or punishment cleanses the soul. Socrates said in the Gorgias, “But in my opinion, at least, Polus, the wrongdoer and the unjust man are completely wretched, yet even more wretched if they are not punished and do not meet retribution for their crimes; and less wretched if they are punished and chastised by gods and men.” (Gorgias, p. 36)

Saban isn’t interested in this distinction. His interest in punishment is the utilitarian aim of deterrence. Saban sees no deterrence in fear; he would say fear or intimidation doesn’t work with today’s youth.

Are the youth of today so different from every generation that has come before? Everyone says that, but where is the evidence? Man is today as he was in antiquity. Man is today as he was during Machiavelli’s time, man sucks. Returning again to the description of man that Machiavelli provided, “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit.” (p. 96)

Add lazy to the list and that sounds like the youth of today. That sounds like the adults of today, and none of that has changed in a few thousand years. It is why Saban’s method seems less appealing than Machiavelli’s. Put simply, Saban’s method requires self-motivation—and that is a flaw. As Machiavelli points out, “So, on this question of being loved or feared, I conclude that since some men love as they please but fear when the prince pleases, a wise prince should rely on what he controls, not on what he cannot control.” (The Prince, p. 98).

Saban attempts to overcome this deficiency through recruiting the correct players and hiring the best assistants. Saban’s recruiting methodology is legendary. He explained in detail at a press conference how he evaluates recruits, and his book is an expanded version of the philosophy. Saban’s a detail person and outlines why his staff spends a great deal of time investigating the character and intelligence of prospective players. When you consider Saban’s heavy reliance on self-motivation, it is easy to understand his chaffing at the restriction on head coaches visiting high schools during the spring evaluation period. If you fail to get high character players, his system is less likely to work.

When it comes to assistants, Saban provides one enormous piece of advice to any leader: hire people who believe in you and your system. (Saban, p. 136) Good people are worthless if they do not subscribe to the leader’s policies. In fact, talented employees can be a liability if they do not yield to the corporate culture; when talent cannot subjugate their own ego to the leader, then that same talent can work against the manager by spreading rumors or undermining authority.

The only way to deal with such persons is to neutralize them. Here Machiavelli and Saban are in agreement—do what is best for the organization (or state), but do it in a fair manner. And do it fast. Problems left alone for too long will lead to ruin.

“Being on the spot, one can detect trouble at the start and deal with it immediately; if one is absent, it is discerned only when it has grown serious, and it is then too late.” (The Prince, p. 37).

Saban declares, “When you see a problem on the horizon, or an already established problem comes to your attention, it is your responsibility to deal with it immediately. Problems only get worse with time; hence the phrase ‘Nip it in the bud’.” (Saban, p. 164)

Saban calls this doing the right thing. The right thing is rarely the easy thing to do (every leader can attests to this.) The Alabama coach is frank in his admission he has failed to do the right thing many times in his career. The book was written prior to his Miami tenure, but his Miami Dolphin time is an excellent example of the stress between honesty and utility.

Nick Saban left Miami under a cloud of protest that he was a liar for not fulfilling his contract, and in promising one thing and then doing another. But if we apply Machiavelli’s methodology, the end result was good not only for Saban, but Miami.

Saban’s decision to leave Miami benefitted both parties. Saban and his family returned to college football, and won 12 games last year. Could anyone doubt Miami is in a better position today than two or three years ago?

Examine Machiavelli’s teachings on the subject. First he states, “If all men were good, this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.” (The Prince, p. 100)

If Saban had stayed at Miami, he would have been fired in due time. It took the Dolphins little time to eject Saban’s successor. Was there a clamoring at the evil of the Dolphins for terminating Cam Cameron? Of course not. Yet, the Dolphins broke a deal with Cameron just as Saban broke a deal with the Dolphins.

If Saban were not flexible enough to reverse his mistake then both the Dolphins and he would have experienced greater turmoil; Saban would have suffered the greatest as he would have been fired. Saban saved himself and his reputation by being flexible.

As Machiavelli teaches man should be honorable, but if the circumstances change he should not fail to change too. “He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.” (The Prince, p. 100)

There are more random thoughts I’ve written down, but I think I’ll end the post here and share more as the mood strikes. Other books mentioned in this commentary: The Prince
, A Greater Than Napoleon, Scipio Africanus, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion


Add Yours
  1. 2

    Ok, Cappy. I admit Saban is a heckuva fb coach, and I’ll also admit that I’m as guilty as anybody about taking college fb way too seriously. But you’re comparing Saban with Machiavelli and Scipio as a philosopher and general? I don’t think college kids will be learning about the teachings of the Nicktator 400 years from now (or any other fb coach, for that matter.)

  2. 3

    I’m not comparing, but trying to judge Saban’s methods in light of the great and accepted leadership methods.

    In my judgment, Saban’s methods aren’t as good as Machiavelli because Saban has too high an opinion of people. That is what struck me—Saban has this positive view where I tend to think people suck.

    Football and Saban aren’t important in the grand scheme, but leadership methods are. He’s good at leadership, so asking why and trying to figure out if his book reveals his methods is worthwhile.

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  4. 5

    Brilliant article! This will keep the Barners out of here since most of them have a ninth grade education or less. I would agree with most of your article and love your analysis and comparisons. I would disagree on Scipio being the greatest general ever and would have to say Alexander the Great or Hanibal. Great job and keep up the good work!

  5. 7

    Just finished the book. I was very impressed by the depth of wisdom conveyed with such clarity and simplicity. I am a theologian and a philosopher, so I’m used to heady stuff. But Saban’s basic principles and core philosophy will benefit people from all walks of life and all professions. Focus on the PROCESS and the results will come. Do things with class and integrity. Don’t cut corners, and don’t cheat others or yourself. Character and Class are the twin pillars of all true champions. These are great ideals that everyone would do well to embrace. Thanks Coach Saban! ROLL TIDE!

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