Texas A&M University head football coach Kevin Sumlin knows that success can be a leader’s worst enemy. For prosperous organizations and winning teams, nothing halts progress like taking for granted that one’s past victories will continue into the future. Leaders like Sumlin are imminently aware that every battle, every game, is different, and one cannot assume that what worked before will work today. More importantly, sustained organizational success means creating a culture in which individuals can be intensely focused on the task at hand without being distracted with what occurs around them. This is precisely the type of culture which Sumlin has been able to create at Texas A&M.
When observing the Aggies both on and off the field, it becomes exceedingly clear that each player gives his blood, sweat and tears for his fellow teammates. For A&M, the process of recruiting these types of players begins with a deep-dive analysis of each prospect, including interviewing not just their high school coach, but also individuals who can offer an unbiased assessment of how the student-athlete interacts with those he has little to gain from. A recruit is also evaluated heavily on their commitment not just to the game of football, but academics and other aspects of their life that can give clues to their discipline of the field. Sumlin is well aware of how easily one can fall in love with someone’s raw talent and be blinded to underlying personality issues which will plague an individual form reaching his true potential. Most significantly, Sumlin and his staff look for players who, for lack of a better word, “Want To”.
“Many people think that winning the game of football is simply a matter of having the eleven most talented players on the field, but that’s rarely the case,” explains Sumlin. “[At Texas A&M] we know that it’s as much about a player’s intangibles as it is what you can see from direct observation. We look for guys that are always at the ball, even when it’s not expected of them. When it comes to evaluating others, most leaders fail to realize that it takes absolutely no talent to give effort; effort is the great equalizer.”
Yet for an organization to be truly successful, visionary leadership and exceptional talent is not enough. Great leaders like Sumlin understand the importance of fostering rigorous debate among their employees while insuring that such heated discussions remain constructive for the organization’s strategic efforts. They must carefully balance the need to be authoritative when discussing the team’s strategic direction, all the while avoiding dictating the underlying substance of the decision. To this end, the Texas A&M coaching staff has an unprecedented amount of autonomy when it comes to the sharing of ideas, and is encouraged to contribute vigorously when it comes to discussing what is best for the team in any particular situation.
“I don’t want to lead people down a certain path, but rather urge them to speak their minds without fear of reprisal,” explains Sumlin. “As a leader you can stifle ideas by leading with your opinions and preventing talented people from having the freedom to be creative. You’re not just hiring people to compliment your strengths, you also need to make sure they make you cognizant of your own weaknesses.”
Part of effective leadership is creating an environment in which dissenting views are shared freely with the intent of avoiding groupthink and fostering innovative ideas that lead to better decision-making processes. Leaders must work hard to avoid what management scientist Michael Aktins calls a “charade of consultation,” in which a leader engages the opinion of subordinates without a genuine interest in their opinions. Moreover, Sumlin is keenly aware that this charade will expose itself at a time where indecision can be most fatal to an organization.
“If our staff isn’t on the same page when we’re in the middle of a game, it can be disastrous,” explains Sumlin. “When you get hit in the face with adversity and your back is against a wall, the last thing you can afford is dissention. You can’t fool our [players], if they sense conflict and indecisiveness among the coaching staff we’ll lose them right then and there.”
According to management scholar Jim Collins, leadership is equally about being visionary as it is about creating an organizational culture in which the truth can be heard and the brutal facts confronted. Just as Sumlin has already recognized, there is a key distinction between allowing people to have their say and actually giving them a real opportunity to be heard.
It is no surprise then that the Monday following each football game, the Aggies hold an early morning meeting known only as “The Truth”, where coaches and players are allowed to discuss, and even confront one another, over the preceding weekend’s events. Everything said during such sessions is considered confidential, and given some of the brutal feedback, most players would prefer to keep it that way. It also creates an opportunity for the coaching staff to reinforce their expectations for the players, and vice-versa.
“When it comes to teachable moments, there is no greater lesson than the one that can be learned from football. It only takes one guy to not do his job for a play to be unsuccessful,” explains Sumlin. “We can go back and show [the players] what happened on film and point out how their miscues caused a catastrophic impact on the outcome of the play. When you call someone out in front of their peers, it’s an incredibly powerful way to motivate them to want to do better the next time around,” he expounds.
It is imperative to recognize that just because someone plays for the same team, or works for the same organization, does not mean that they are cognizant of what goes on in departments outside their own. In order to avoid creating negative political behavior within an organization, it is the responsibility of managers to ensure that teammates and employees are made aware of what is happening in areas outside their own. According to Sumlin, this helps eliminate the “locker room lawyer,” those who constantly point fingers and create excuses that their own shortcomings rest on the fault of someone else’s shoulders.
“There’s a common misconception in football that the offense is aware of what’s happening on the field when the defense is playing (and vice versa). But in reality, that’s rarely the case. We know it’s easy for players to look at the scoreboard and make hasty judgments about what their teammates are and aren’t accomplishing, but rarely is it that simple. As coaches, we’re responsible for making sure the players know exactly why the outcome of a game occurred, rather than them assuming that it was due to one of their teammate’s failures,” Sumlin explains.
The need for members of an organization to be on the same page in every facet and function, while simultaneously remaining committed to one another, is a necessary component to insuring stability during turbulent times. While Sumlin has used transparent communication as a tool to create organizational buy-in throughout his coaching career, never has it played a more significant role than during his time at Texas A&M. Very few organizational leaders have had to deal with the scrutiny and attention that comes from having the most talented player in the country, Johnny Manziel, be a part of their team. This has been compounded further by Heisman winning quarterback’s usage by the national media as a symbol of NCAA hypocrisy and the need for reform in collegiate athletics.
While many would argue that the distractions caused by the attention drawn create a burden that outweighs the strategic benefit of having such a player, for Kevin Sumlin, it is just another opportunity to further instill the culture he has set out to create at A&M. At the core of this culture is the simplistic mantra, “It’s About Us.” Sumlin and his staff preach to the players that their sole focus should be only on themselves and their teammates, and not on externalities or their competitors. From an outsiders prospective, this might be perceived as an inherently selfish ideal that would only exacerbate the problem at hand, but a deeper examination reveals that it does just the opposite.
“I’ve always been a believer that more games are lost than won. There’s a million ways to skin a cat, and there isn’t just one way to run a great organization, but to emulate or be like somebody else is dangerous,” opines Sumlin. “You can have the most talented players in the world, but if you’re inconsistent in your leadership and strategy, it will prove fatal for you every time. Whatever your style may be, what matters is that you remain unwavering to it, and that you focus on how to make your organization better instead of figuring out how to make your competition worse.”
This philosophy, which promotes intense focus and constancy of purpose among the team and staff, has become a pervasive part of Texas A&M football culture. While many teams circle critical games on their schedule to remind them of the significance of the task at hand, the Aggies choose to treat every one of their opponents as equals, purposefully avoiding the emotional roller-coaster that can come from winning and losing such games. More pointedly, this singular self-focus has allowed the Aggies to concentrate what is most pivotal at that very moment even among the constant prying of the public eye.
“When fall camp started and there was a tremendous amount of media attention on Johnny [due to the NCAA investigation], many of our detractors couldn’t understand just how it was possible for us to continue to practice and perform at a high level,” explains Sumlin. “From the inside though, we were as intensely focused as ever because our culture has always been about making what occurs externally irrelevant. This is why we’ve been to avoid all distractions. Our players recognize their focus should only be on the people they need most – their coaches and teammates.”
In his seminal work on management, Good To Great, Jim Collins’ established that organizational greatness is not a function of circumstance, but rather the result of the conscious decision to become great combined with the discipline to undergo the rigors necessary to achieve such a goal. At the very essence of Texas A&M’s “it’s about us” philosophy is this realization. By creating a culture in which talent and energy is channeled towards elevating the organization as a single cohesive unit, where intense focus is put on open communication and transparency of critical issues, and where no individual is perceived to be above anyone else, the Aggies have prospered amidst turbulent conditions. Most significantly, they have won without cutting corners and compromising integrity when the temptation to do so is everywhere.
“While we may be just football coaches, we’re also here to develop young kids into men. We tell all of our players, “you don’t have to be the man; you just have to be a man”. The only thing we have guaranteed is the twelve Saturdays each fall that we get to play football, but beyond that who knows what will happen. In the end, I care more about them becoming good husbands and fathers than what happens on the field. You’d be surprised how successful you can become when you stop worrying about winning and go out there and have some fun.”