You knew I’d eventually have to comment on Urban Meyer, coach of the University of Florida. As a student of competition as well as a student of leadership, I love watching sports management, draft decisions and trade discussions. Football in Florida this year offers some interesting scenarios and lessons for leadership, with Bobby Bowden’s retirement from Florida State after 34 years and Urban Meyer’s health leave.

For some time, I’ve been watching Florida State because of their succession planning arrangement. I admired their decision to try to work out a seamless transition but observed with interest how they handled some of the pitfalls:

  • How does the incumbent leader know when to step away?
  • What if he knows it’s time but is afraid of the future?
  • What happens if the successor deems himself “ready” before the incumbent leaves?
  • Who has the real power in hiring decisions?
  • Is the university still committed to going in the same direction a few years after they named the successor, especially when that successor hasn’t looked like the savior they hoped him to be?

Though Florida State fumbled the handoff a bit and ended up creating some bitterness with Bobby’s family, Jimbo Fisher has taken the reigns and has been given the flexibility to remake the coaching staff because of the way things shook out this season. Florida State football is moving in a predictable direction, and the future looks bright under its new coach. All as a result of forethought and planning.

Florida, on the other hand, was caught completely by surprise when Urban Meyer announced December 26 that he was stepping down. I’m sure Florida’s administration had some forewarning, but it was still a shock. How on earth could a coach resign out of the blue after five wildly successful years? Florida had just breathed a sigh of relief when Notre Dame hired someone else; they knew they could plan on having their coach for a lot more years if he was willing to turn down his “dream job.” They were so confident they let their emergency plan walk out the door to coach Louisville. Yet, here they were, caught without a coach or even a thought of transition planning.

Florida acted quickly and managed to talk Meyer into calling it a leave of absence rather than a resignation. Gator Nation breathed a sigh of relief — with the hope that Meyer will come back, the recruiting class is safe and the administration has a bit of time to put a plan together. However, I want to ask, from a leadership standpoint: Is Florida in a better place today — both short and long term — than they would have been if they went out and found the best coach on the market? I think Florida has some very uncomfortable days and decisions ahead. The questions I’m asking:

  • How well has Meyer’s leadership style set up his assistants to succeed? We’ll find out pretty quickly how much of the offense came from Meyer himself. With a lot of transition in the team and an interim coach without real authority, there’s a recipe for failure here in the short term. This was going to be one of Meyer’s toughest coaching years anyway. Now the interim coach inherits that challenge.
  • What if Meyer doesn’t come back in 2010? How long do they wait for him? How long will the University be strung along?
  • What if Meyer comes back too early? In the last few days, he’s shown that he’s willing to yield to pressure, at the expense of promises to family. How much pressure will there be to return by August? What happens if Meyer can’t handle the stress during the season?

Let me be clear here. Yes, I am a football fan, but many of these questions aren’t football questions. They’re leadership questions. Here are a few of my conclusions. First, no leader is ever irreplaceable, and no leader can guarantee his or her future. Boards and supervisors must always have a plan for emergency and long-term successors.

Second, there are certain priorities that override your business objectives. Health is one of those. To their credit, Florida showed that its people are their priority, not just a winning product. They clearly showed loyalty to a coach who has given them everything.

Third, sometimes making a clear but difficult decision, without looking back, is better for business than sentimentality. While I admire Florida’s loyalty to Meyer, I think they’re going to regret their attempt to hold onto past success by holding onto Meyer. I think they could have showed just as much loyalty and honor to Meyer while saying goodbye with great pomp and celebration. Then they could have moved on.

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