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Leadership lessons from Nick Saban

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Alabama head coach Nick Saban celebrates after a touchdown run by Alabama (2) Derrick Henry in the first quarter during the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, January 11, 2016 (Credit: Icon Sportswire/Chris Williams)

The showdown between the top-ranked Clemson Tigers and the vaunted Alabama Crimson Tide exceeded its titanic billing. The game was a back-and-forth affair, both teams dazzling with their speed and execution. In the end, Alabama was too much for the Tigers, capping an explosive second-half barrage with an onside-kick recovery and a 97-yard blink-of-an-eye kick-return touchdown. After the dust settled, the Tide found itself on top for the fourth time in seven years. That unprecedented feat, unmatched in the modern era of college football, has led numerous writers to coronate Nick Saban as the best college football coach in the history of the sport.

The truth is, even without his latest championship, which brings the total tally to five, Nick Saban was already a historic coach. His legacy is certainly impressive, especially in the era of competition that has seen college sports become a nation-wide 24/7 multi-billion dollar industry. What are the leadership lessons that can be gleaned from Coach Saban’s time with the Tide, and how can we appropriate them as Christians seeking not to win championships, but to bring glory to King Jesus?

Jim Collins’ book Great by Choice examines the habits and characteristics of top-level leaders. He calls this group of high achievers “10Xers”, and highlights that one of the most important characteristics of these leaders is that they do not always exhibit what we commonly think of as the essentials of good leaders: charisma, charm, affability, and personal magnetism. Collins provides a sketch of the real characteristics that exemplify these leaders, and he begins by suggesting that high-achieving leaders must always have a goal and cause that they serve that is bigger than themselves:

“10x leaders can be bland or colorful, uncharismatic or magnetic, understated or flamboyant, normal to the point of dull, or just flat-out weird—none of this really matters, as long as they’re passionately driven for a cause beyond themselves.”

Standing on the podium after the game, accepting the championship trophy, Saban did not want to talk about his personal achievement, but sought to reiterate the importance of teamwork and how it showed through his players this year. He highlighted the significance of this moment for his players rather than himself. In doing so, he sought to deflect attention from himself and instead talk about the achievement of a common goal.

But beyond having a goal that is bigger than themselves, Collins also argues that great leaders have fanatic discipline. He illustrates this principle with his famous “20-mile march” analogy, in which success is achieved through preparation, execution, determination, and perseverance. But one of the interesting points he makes is that “confidence is built from performance in adversity”.

Watching the game, you saw the cameras pan over to Saban on the sideline at specific points during the game, especially after Clemson made particularly incredible plays. What you saw was Saban going around to his beleaguered team, sternly clapping his hands and encouraging them to continue to fight. The visible response of the players was to trust their coach’s words, and they did so by constantly answering every Clemson score with an equally impressive score of their own. The confidence that Saban instilled in his team comes from countless experience of being down in games and overcoming the odds. Saban wasn’t blindly trying to just pump up his players, but was relying on previous experiences of overcoming adversity to help his players in the middle of the present fight.

The final observation from Collins’ description of a 10X leader is that they embody “empirical creativity”. He says that these high-achieving leaders “view mistakes as expensive tuition”. Yes, Saban has won four championships in seven years, which is remarkable, but during that time he has also been a part of gut-wrenching losses, especially last year’s loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Saban’s relentless preparation causes him to look back on those losses to see how he can improve and not make the same mistake twice.

How can we appropriate and apply these lessons to our lives as Christians seeking to bring God glory through our leadership? First, the principle of having a goal that is bigger than ourselves reminds us of how our over-arching vision as Christians must be to bring God glory rather than seek our own advancement. Second, the fanatic discipline that marks Coach Saban can be applied in any sphere of life, but with one caveat. As Christians we don’t trust and rely on our own strength to keep persevering. We rely on the strength of the Holy Spirit to help us, and throw ourselves on the grace and mercy of Christ when we fall. Third and finally, we can show creativity by learning to adapt to the unique circumstances that God places in our lives. Each new season provides new opportunities and challenges, but the goal remains the same: seek to bring God glory. The more we apply ourselves to growing in Christ, the more the fruit of our lives will reveal our dependence and trust in him.