15 Leadership Lessons From the SEC Coach of the Year

Some told him it was a sleeping giant. But others told him to run as far away as possible.

The season, 2001. The school, the University of Missouri. The coach, Gary Pinkel.

Throughout the 17 seasons prior to 2001, Mizzou football had winning seasons in only two of them. The only bowl appearances were those same two winning seasons. Four coaches guided the program during that time. Instability, frustration, even apathy were the words that were most commonly used to describe the fanbase.

But Coach Pinkel chose to see the giant that was dormant. In his 14 seasons as Mizzou’s head coach, Pinkel has led his team to 10 bowl games, winning six of them.

He has sent countless players to the NFL. In 2014, he won the SEC Coach of the Year award. His teams have won the SEC East the last two seasons. His teams have won 23 games over that two-year period, the most in program history. He has the most wins in program history.

Sitting here in early 2015, with the benefit of hindsight, it would be easy to see the 14-year overnight success of the Mizzou football program.

What we would miss though is the “remarkably difficult”, as Pinkel describes it, effort of changing course in a losing culture.

These aren’t secret or groundbreaking new ideas. They’re not specific to football or even athletics. They are core fundamental leadership lessons that work in business, in athletics and even at home. I’m sure there are plenty of other leadership fundamentals, but here are 15 that Pinkel has led with since his arrival 14 seasons ago:

1. Demand Excellence.

Easy isn’t excellent. Excellence takes hard work, grit and determination. But Pinkel demands it from himself, his staff and his players. In all facets from practice, class work, preparation and their play.

2. Have a Plan for Everything.

He calls his mentor, Coach Don James from the University of Washington, a “meticulous and incredibly organized” coach. From the day he arrived at Mizzou, he had a plan that he immediately put into place.

3. Make No Excuses.

If you make excuses for yourself and others in your network, you set yourself up for failure. Don’t enable, instead equip them to perform at their highest potential.

4. Focus Relentlessly.

We live in a disconnected, fragmented and highly distracted age. Pinkel encourages his staff and players to focus intensely on what is immediately in front of them. Blocking out what could be, what others think and other distracting voices for what their mission is at that moment.

5. It’s Not About You.

To build and then sustain success at the highest level, it takes an entire team on the same page. In Pinkel’s program, players are encouraged to be a great teammate more than they are encouraged to be amazing individually. Putting the needs of the team over the desires of the individual is critical.

6. Keep It In The Family.

In any team or family environment, conflict will arise. Fights, drama, missed expectations. Pinkel demands that everyone involved in his program (from the academic to the athletic) do their job and keep things in the family. Don’t gossip, complain or cut down behind someone’s back.

7. Establishing Trust is Everything.

Without a foundation of trust and the knowledge that Pinkel has his players’ best in mind, they won’t follow him. He goes as far as saying, “everything we do is built on trust.” Do the hard work to establish trust.

8. Instill A Culture of Accountability and Responsibility.

Coach says if you’re 30 seconds late, you’re late. If you do drugs or allow your grades to slip, there are clear consequences. To lead, you must hold the entire team accountable to the mission of the organization.

9. Evaluate Everything.

Having a plan is great. Having a rigid, unchangeable plan is foolish. In Pinkel’s program, everything is up for evaluation at all times. From the meals they eat, to the way they train, to the way they handle media requests, to what play they call on 4th-and-1, finding a better way is the mission.

10. Push Through Adversity.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses during Pinkel’s regime.

As soon as you hit some adversity, you tend fall back into old habits. His teams had losing records during each of his first two seasons. He went 5-7 in his first year in the SEC and he was on everyone’s “hot seat”.

Pinkel says when adversity hits, and it will hit all of us, that is when we’re tempted to revert to bad habits, question the foundation and become self-centered instead of team-centered. How did Pinkel respond to the latest adversity? By winning 12 games his second year in the SEC and 11 games the third year.

11. Ensure Clear Expectations.

A lack of clarity is a death wish to long-term health of any organization. Be ridiculously clear about expectations and who is responsible for what. Dialogue and debate internally about the plan, but when it’s time to execute the plan, ensure that everyone is on the same page.

12. There Is No Quick Fix.

It takes a stubborn commitment to your vision to ensure big changes and big results. A quick fix is a myth and anything worth doing will likely require amazing persistence.

13. Get 5 Percent Better Each Year.

Especially at this time of year, many of us make huge, sweeping plans, goals and resolutions. Big goals are awesome, but Pinkel encourages his staff to get 5% better each year. 5% is doable and it builds on the strong foundation that already exists. Don’t believe that total reinvention is needed where possibly you’re only a few steps away from a major breakthrough.

14. Be Honest.

Admit when you make a mistake. Allow your team to see your shortcomings. Invite them into your decision making process. Don’t lie, be honest to them.

15. Love Them.

In an era of performance, demands, and cynicism, love (especially for a football coach) stands out like a sore thumb. But Pinkel argues that, without a foundation of loving his players, they won’t respect and follow him. On Senior Day every year, you can find Pinkel at the edge of the player’s tunnel hugging each of his seniors as tears stream down their faces.

As Pinkel says on his website, “Today is the best preparation for what tomorrow may bring.”

Leaders, make 2015 the best year yet.


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