ALABAMA FOOTBALL: The leadership keys to Nick Saban’s success

I love studying leadership. I confess that my favorite book on leadership is Machiavelli’s The Prince, but there are many other great resources on leadership from a moral perspective. One of the best ways to learn about leadership is the many fine blogs that study the topic—some are secular and some are religious. One particular blog post that caught my attention was one from the President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. Thom Rainier outlined “Four Keys to Long-Haul Leadership” based on research into this type of leader. These keys are intended to build successful organizations instead of short-term or “flash-in-the-pan” organizations.

The four keys are like reading a checklist of attributes of many successful executives, generals, presidents, preachers or football coaches.

Rainer’s four keys are Passion, Work Ethic, Persistence and Humility. This provides an excellent framework to evaluate leadership.

These are four characteristics of Alabama football coach Nick Saban. I’m not sure these are all of the roots of Saban’s success, but this is a good place to start because these are important themes to building an organization that can flourish—and Nick Saban knows how to build the organizational structure to flourish. To this list I’d add the ability to enforce accountability, and would likely rename humility since Saban doesn’t seem all that meek—but rather the element of humility that is most descriptive of Saban is the ability to see that he doesn’t have all the answers and utilize the skills of others to get the best answer to a football problem.

Nick Saban’s passion
Saban is passionate about winning. Paul Finebaum described Saban this way: “He is about success and he is about becoming successful anyway under the sun that is legal.”

The genesis of this passion is somewhat more difficult to discover. Saban attributes his primary motivational factor to his family, according to his book, How Good Do You Want To Be? More specifically, Saban says “Terry, Nicholas and Kristen and my mother, Mary” have sacrificed for him and this inspires him “to run a great football program that gives young people a chance to succeed” (p. 34).

However, there would seem to be more at work here. Saban writes about a desire to make a life outside of the coalmines of West Virginia. This combined with the role of Saban’s father in showing the divide between the rewards of success and the price of failure no doubt created a person with an intense passion to succeed. He saw a narrow space between success and failure. With this construct, Saban is able to dedicate himself to winning.

Nick Saban’s work ethic
This dedication to his mission leads to an intense focus on the important tasks. In the foreword to Nick Saban’s book How Good Do You Want To Be?, a man who knows something about running a successful organization, New England Coach Bill Belichick explains this element of Saban’s personality.

“Nick is all about focus –on one thing,” Belichick writes of Saban. “Whether it is the next opponent, the next practice, or the next recruit, he has the ability—at any given time—to devote his absolute attention and energy to solving the problem or challenge at hand before moving to the next one.”

Saban covered much of this work ethic within the pages of his book. One particular area where he discusses work ethic, Saban credits his father for building within him an appreciation for working to a standard of excellence.

“What I learned from my days at the gas station was to do a job right and not settle for anything less than the best. And that it takes hard work to do it the right way,” (Saban, p. 37).

Nick Saban’s persistence
Another Belichick quote about Saban highlights this portion of Saban’s personality.

“Nick uses the word relentless when stressing to his team the necessary approach to the game,” Belichick writes of Saban. “In this profession, nobody demonstrates the meaning of that word as much as Nick.”

But, it goes a step further with the Alabama football coach. Saban does all this and still shows a positive energy for the operation.

“One of the most amazing things about Nick is, as relentless as he is, as detailed as he is, and as much as he controls the pulse of every last aspect of his football program, he never looks or acts tired,” Belichick writes of the Alabama football coach.

Nick Saban’s humility
Saban models this key to leadership in two ways. First, he is able to spot his own personal failings and, second, he finds value in what others have to say about football.

The first sign of humility is how honest Saban can be about his own failings as a leader, husband or parent. In his book, Saban admits to doing a “poor job as a father” following the 2001 SEC Championship season (p. 204). After describing how this could happen, Saban offers this advice, “Recognizing your shortcomings as a husband, wife, son, daughter, father or mother is critical to becoming a better one” (p. 204).

This actually applies beyond the family setting too and is an important element to Saban’s ability to marshal others to deal with football problems. The meetings between Saban and Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops could be seen as proof that Saban listens to other defensive coaches about methods to slow down today’s offenses and in that particular situation to slow down Florida’s Tim Tebow.

Saban’s ability to listen to others and modify his way of doing things is a key to success.

Saban holds people accountable
Not mentioned in the four keys to success, but something that it important to any organization, is the willingness of a leader to hold people accountable.

Saban speaks about accountability often, but this quote from 2010 is illustrative of his philosophy: “Everybody has to be accountable to a standard and the question is ‘What is everyone doing to impact the success, to impact the standard, individually and collectively?’”

If you fail to meet Saban’s standards there are consequences. With Saban, the consequences come sooner rather than later.

“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. 154).

This was something he learned from his childhood. As a child, Saban earned a D grade in school, and his father made him quit sports until his grades improved. To illustrate this lesson, Saban’s dad took him into a West Virginia coalmine to show where Saban could end up if he failed to work harder.

There is little doubt that Alabama football coach Nick Saban is one of the most interesting leaders in college football. He stands atop college football today, and is worth further study to fully appreciate Saban’s leadership philosophy. His book provides important clues, but there is much more to be done to fully understand Saban.

So, what do you think? What are some important traits of Saban’s leadership style that makes him a winner?