A leadership case study: football in Florida

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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Romans 12 – workaholism

11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.

Ah, the workaholic’s life verse. At Willow Creek Leadership Summit in 2006, I remember Andy Stanley sharing about the toughest decision he’d ever made. He compared two verses and realized that it was his job to love his wife while it was God’s job to love His church. He came to the conclusion then that he was going to give God 45 hours a week to build whatever church God wanted to build, and he was going to focus on loving his wife — specifically by being home for what my wife calls “the witching hour,” when she’s trying to cook dinner while the kids are hungry and cranky.

He dealt with all kinds of flack as he left his staff working in the office as he walked out and as he skipped hospital visits. But the results have been incredible. The church has moved away from being staff-driven. He said a volunteer told him as she mobilized dozens to help her, “Well, someone has to provide congregational care.” They’ve made very intentional decisions for the church, including shutting their doors the last Sunday of every year, as a gift to the staff. Over time, he has attracted a healthy, motivated staff who work hard… and then go home. He tells each one on their first day of work that they can cheat the church, but never cheat their family.

Here’s the thing that caught me by surprise. The very next speaker got up and talked as if he hadn’t heard a thing Andy said. This boomer pastor — who has had some fairly public battles with workaholism and burnout — started talking about the many hours you have to put in as a leader. The juxtaposition was stark.

So, who was right? Everything in me wants to scream, “Andy!” Like many of my colleagues under 45, I want it all. I want to help support my wife, help raise my kids and go to every event with them. I also want to be successful at my job and continue to get opportunities to advance and grow. But is it possible to do both? I think it is possible to have both, but neither to the extent you want it. I’m constantly torn: when I’m at work, I feel like that’s the most important thing I can be doing. And when I’m spending time with my family, I feel like that’s the most important thing. I wish I could spend more time doing both, but God in his wisdom decided on 24 hours in a day. I’m okay with both/and, and I’m okay with healthy tension. I pray that I make the right choices with my compromises so that neither side pays too much when I can’t be there.

Here’s my theory on busyness, based purely on my own life experiences. When I was single, I thought I was busy. I had lots of social engagements and often wished I could pull back a bit from my commitments. When I got married, I added a whole new set of commitments and found I didn’t have as much freedom with my time. Then along came baby #1 and a whole new layer of busyness. Some things I thought were critical to my life had to fall away. Babies #2 and 3 repeated the pattern. Increases in responsibility at work and church have only added more busyness to my life than I could have ever imagined even three years ago, let alone when I was 22 and single.

The trick is to be busy and still serve the Lord enthusiastically.

Here’s my question for all you readers out there: Is work-life balance a generational thing, or does every generation switch to workaholism as their naivite and idealism fade?

Why reluctance part 4: different motivations

Back to my reflections on why leaders are reluctant to step out. This one has confounded many in the Boomer generation who are mesmerized by the trappings of leadership: power, title and a corner office. Young people with leadership gifts have different motivations and priorities. For instance, family, friends and other relationships are the higher priority in the lives of Millennials and Xers. That’s not to say they don’t value their jobs and their advancement opportunities, but they want both/and, not either/or.

I heard Andy Stanley speak at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit a couple of years ago about his decision to put family first and limit his work hours to 45 a week. This personal decision, which he deemed his toughest as a leader, has now revolutionized his church, which attracts high-caliber young leaders who have the same priority. As we took a break immediately afterwards, there was a buzz among my friends. We were all grateful that someone finally gave legitimacy in that kind of setting to what we all wanted to know: could you be a leader without becoming a workaholic?

Imagine our surprise when we came back from break and heard a Boomer follow Andy’s talk by making a point about the long hard hours necessary for moving ahead in leadership. Had he even heard Andy’s message? Setting parameters on work is certainly not a popular message in upper echelons, and that creates a barrier to young people who are watching and deciding for themselves whether leadership is worth pursuing.

Let me share a personal example that goes a step beyond work-life balance. A twentysomething young man came to work for me. He was a quick worker, extroverted and full of energy and confidence. I could see the leadership gifts oozing out of him, so within three months of his arrival in Orlando, I asked him to take on a greater level of responsibility. He agreed, and he did a fantastic job. He was efficient, a real people person, and he made some great advances in his department. He had an incredible sense of work-life balance, seldom leaving the office as late as 5:01pm and often arranging his schedule to leave earlier so he could coach his boys in baseball.

While I had no qualms about the job he was doing, I could tell he was dying on the vine. It wasn’t long before he told me he wanted to find another job. The meetings and process of management were killing him. He was a people person but removed from people. He wanted to go back to a “doing job” rather than an administrative position. A year later, I’ve concluded that I moved him up too fast, and I lost him. I think I could have supported him better and framed the job around his desire to be around people. But the fact he did such a great job suggests that it wasn’t necessarily the wrong job for him. Previous generations probably would have sucked it up and worked through it on their road to “reach the top” one day; not so with this generation.

Titles and power are simply not worth the cost in health, relationships and time for important things that fall outside of work responsibilities. Bottom line: young leaders’ motivations are different. Life is more than the job you do. Titles are usually crutches to defend positional or political authority. And power is not necessarily the end goal.