Warning: at first glance, this post is about sports. Or maybe it’s not about sports. You might have to read past the first paragraph and gauge for yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, Georgia Tech concluded its search for a new basketball coach, selecting Brian Gregory from Dayton. For most Tech fans, that choice was underwhelming, as it appears Gregory is more steak than sizzle. Yes, he’s good. But his team isn’t in the NCAA tournament, and he didn’t come from a major conference. Tech fans have a high-enough view of their program that they think they could have hired a great coach away from another big-name school. So Gregory is bound to crush expectations.

Tech’s athletic director had a choice to make, and it just so happens that it’s the kind of choice any leader makes when it comes to succession planning and search committees. I think sport serves as a fishbowl, bringing certain choices into the open that often happen behind the scenes. The choices Tech faced, stated in general leadership terms for greater application:

1. Covet a shiny object. There are a number of “Cinderella teams” who crashed the NCAA tournament this year. Every time Butler or VCU won, the dollars projected for a bigger school to steal their hot coach rose significantly. Yet who’s to say their recent success in a smaller organization would translate to a regular winning program? Most organizations can point to people who, by their movement in an organization, are bound to be noticed. Yet there are concerns. For someone who has been successful at every level, what happens when they face adversity? What happens if their inertia collides with the Peter principle and they exceed the limits of their competence? Have they been adequately tested? Can they handle the increase in complexity and profile? How much risk is there in promoting the latest trend? One area to watch for is managing expectations. This leader better win, and soon. With all sizzle, he’s likely to win spectacularly or fail spectacularly.

This week, I read the story of David and Goliath again. David’s qualifications for taking on Goliath were that he had defeated lions and bears. King Saul had a decision to make: promote or protect this young, eager leader.

2. Stay safe with experience. In contrast, the safe choice looks attractive. He’s slow and steady. He’s never stood out as a rising star, but he’s also had few down years. Mr. Consistency has been successful at just about every level and is solid in the fundamentals. He’s likely a workaholic, accomplishing success through hard work and effort. He might be boring, but he’s put in the years and earned the right to be considered for the position.

My biggest concerns here are whether the person has the passion and energy to motivate followers and the courage necessary to lead change. If the organization has systemic challenges, it needs a leader, not a manager. Sometimes the safe choice is the biggest risk. In Saul’s case, the safe choices were hiding. The organization needed a fool who would “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

3. Stay close to home. In Georgia Tech’s case, a duo of former players indicated an interest and built a strong enough argument to at least get interviewed. Willing to work for less money and put their heart and soul into the job, home grown leaders have the opportunity to tap the culture and win over the fan base. In this case, both lacked head coaching experience but had been successful at lower levels. There’s risk, because they’re unproven, but patience among the fan base, who is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is the kind of leader Jim Collins calls a Level 5 Leader: someone from within who is passionate about the organization and stubbornly wills it to success. In a sense, David tapped into that passion. His drive came from the fact that Goliath mocked his God. Nobody should get away with that!

4. Go with reluctance. In the person who never sought the job, you find humility and a low salary. While similar to the passionate leader in being homegrown, there’s a distinct difference: this person showed no initiative, nor did he dream that he would be considered. My concern is that someone who never thinks himself a leader and doesn’t take personal development seriously. He might do a competent job, but he’s not interested in growing as a leader so may never take the organization any further. When adversity comes, he may buck responsibility and wither. On the other hand, expectations are low, and followers are pulling for his success, so he may be given a long honeymoon period.

We absolutely love the Rags to Riches story, and we have a strange desire for a leader who stands up and says he never wanted the position. But the risk is that he’ll burn out because it’s a bad fit or quit because of the stress. Or perhaps he’ll turn down your offer in the first place.

There are lots of examples in the Bible of reluctant leaders who begged God not to send them, but David wasn’t one of them. I love the way he verifies the reward before taking the risk with Goliath: “What will a man get for killing this Philistine?” While they weren’t his primary motivation, David didn’t refuse the attractive salary package (the king’s hot daughter and a tax exemption for life).

So, which is the right strategy? It depends. The fact is that every organization is different, and every organization is at a different stage when looking for a coach or president. In Georgia Tech’s case, they needed fundamentals, consistency and a low salary. That led them to replace a coach who looked uninspired with an experienced coach who has hardly excited the fan base. In another setting, they may well have made a different choice.

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Invictus movie posterI really enjoyed watching Invictus this week. If you haven’t seen the film, it chronicles the first days and months of Nelson Mandela’s rise to leadership in South Africa. Rest assured it is not a sports movie as much as a leadership movie. It portrays several forms of leadership and one leader’s attempts to influence another leader to bring about a desired result.

I was fascinated first by Mandela’s use of symbols. He seemed to bet his presidency on a decision — against the advice of his chief of staff — to focus on rugby as a symbol that would accomplish his desire to bring a divided nation together. It’s true that sports are one of the few things that can create unlikely alliances. Sports success not only unites; it inspires and ignites dreams.

The biggest challenge Mandela takes on in his use of symbols was one of prejudice. Rugby was seen as a white sport, and the Springboks a symbol of everything black South Africans fought against. If the whites cheered for it, the blacks cheered against it. Mandela took a major risk in attempting to reclaim a national symbol. Most leadership gurus would fall on the side of his chief of staff; the associations of most symbols are too powerful to redefine.

Let me try to suggest a parallel. I don’t think we appreciate how crazy it is that the cross has become a piece of jewelry. In the first century, the cross symbolized everything that was hated about the Romans. How many redefinitions has that symbol gone through in the two millennia since Christ stole it from his captors? Of course, that’s 2,000 years. Mandela redefines the rugby team in less than a year. Can you think of another symbol that changed meaning so quickly?

Symbols are a powerful tool for leaders to use to advance their cause. That’s a topic worth another post down the road.

The second thing that struck me was that Mandela staked his influence over the rugby team on someone other than the coach. In fact, I can’t recall the coach appearing in the film. Instead, Mandela challenges the captain of the team. As a player, François Pienaar has the greater influence over the resolve of the team.

Mandela’s conversations with Pienaar are alone worth seeing the movie again. The bi-generational leadership model they employ is celebrated at the end, when each thanks the other for service to the nation. I think what struck me was their two very different styles and roles. Mandela has to lead a nation. His influence comes from incredible personal authority burnished from 27 years in prison. His job is to inspire, make tough choices and sacrifice for the good of the country. He does that in several cases by challenging his people — black South Africans — in essence to do to whites what they wish the whites would have done to them.

On the other hand, Pienaar begins with very little personal authority, seemingly barely surviving a purge of team leadership. In some ways, he is a symbol of the Springboks’ losing ways and racist heritage. Inspired by Mandela, he determines to bring change. He prods and challenges the team to break their self-made molds. He puts in the effort, comes up with the strategy and forces the team to dig as deep as he himself does. He also uses symbol. There’s a great moment when he hands out cans of beer that nobody likes and forcefully associates the taste with losing. At times, like Mandela, he looks very lonely in his leadership. By sheer determination, he carries his team to victory, but then shares the credit 43 million ways.

By the end of the movie, Pienaar shares the stage as equals with Mandela. I’m intrigued by his journey — how a young leader can build a reputation and gain the personal authority needed to influence a nation. The movie’s worth watching, and probably watching again. Give me your thoughts. What stood out for you?