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Nick Saban's Leadership Secrets

Nick Saban's leadership secrets with football players


By John Millen

If you know the name Nick Saban, you may have strong feelings of love or hate depending on your college football allegiance.

If you don’t know Nick Saban, he recently retired as football coach at the University of Alabama. But more than that, Saban leaves a legacy as one of the most-winning college football coaches of all time, as the winner of six national championships and a record of 201-29 over 17 seasons at Alabama.

While being interviewed recently at HIMSS24, a healthcare conference, Saban offered fascinating insights into his leadership secrets of success. Even if you're not a football fan, keep reading to learn how to be a more effective leader.

Transactional leadership

Saban said he’d spent the early part of his 34-year football career as a “transactional” leader until a single game transformed his leadership style and his life.

"I actually changed my style as a leader," Saban recalled. "I was always a transactional leader. I was a very result-oriented person. Winning the game was most important, not how you played the game. 

"If we won, I patted people on the back. I was happy. I gave them positive self-gratification – which everybody needs, and it was good.

"But if we lost? I was very critical. It was always somebody's fault. 'How are we going to fix this?' Everything was based on results. If you're negative with people, and there's no teaching involved, it kills people's morale. You don't really want to be that way."

Saban’s profound realization came in his fourth season as the coach at Michigan State University.

"In 1998, we go to play Ohio State," he said. "They're undefeated. They've been number one since preseason. This is the 10th game of the year. And we're 4-5 at Michigan State. We're average. And Ohio State is a dominant, really good team. And I said, 'We got no chance to win this game.' No chance. 

“I didn't know what approach to use with the team. I didn't know how, because I was transactional. How are we going to win this transaction, when I think we have no chance to do it?

"So I call a psychiatrist. And he says, 'You need to tell the players to play one play at a time. Like it has a history and a life of its own. Don't look at the scoreboard. There's no external factors. There's no crowd, there's no nothing. Just go have fun and compete. 

“And after that play is over, focus on the next play. Never look back. So it's nothing about results. It's just one play at a time.' Very process oriented. Very focused, not on the outcome but on what would you have to do to get the outcome, and how would you have to compete to do it?

"And guess what? We won. We won. We got behind 17-7 in the game, but nobody got frustrated. Nobody did anything. Everybody just kept playing. And it actually frustrated them because they were used to just people sort of melting.

Transformational leadership

"I became a transformational leader from that moment on. And if you look from that game on behind that, I was a very average coach. From that time on, I have been very successful as a coach. 

“Transformational leadership means you're going to set a good example. You're going to be somebody that somebody can emulate, and you care about other people to help them for their benefit, not your benefit, for their benefit.

"You care. You have a vision, you have a plan. You're willing to inspire and teach them everything that they need to do to be able to be the best version of themselves. It wasn't transactional anymore. It was transformational. It just completely changed."

"I think that that type of leadership is much more effective in this day and age than the other."

From my assessment of Saban’s talk, here are three actions you can take to build long-term success:

1. Help people with personal growth

Saban's leadership style revolves around vision, inspiration, and genuine care for his team members' growth. By setting an example and imparting valuable lessons, he galvanizes individuals to realize their full potential.

Saban believes in empowering his players to take ownership of their success and that of the team. He underscores the importance of relentless self-assessment and discipline in executing daily goals.

"We show everybody that they're the best version of themselves, that they're going to create value for their future, which will benefit their quality of life and their chances of being successful in life," Saban said.

2. Grow a high-achieving culture 

Central to Saban's leadership philosophy is the cultivation of a cohesive organizational culture. "The number one thing is culture," he said. "And the culture comes from the individuals that make the team what it is."

"Everybody's got to do what they need to do to be a part of the team," said Saban. "I've said before: Mediocre people don't like high achievers; high achievers don't like mediocre people. You can't establish principles and values in an organization and a standard and not have everybody make a commitment. 

“Because if you let those two things coexist – mediocre people and high achievers in the same organization – you're never going to have any togetherness, you're never going to have any teamwork."

3. Focus on the process

Within that culture, Saban and his coaches develop specific, repeatable processes to achieve their goals.  Players are taught to focus on the process rather than fixating on outcomes, thereby inspiring his team to excel beyond expectations.

"Most people want to do that. But a lot of people don't know exactly how to do it, so they need someone and something to follow a plan.”

It's clear that Saban's principles transcend the realm of football. They offer all of us invaluable lessons on achieving success with the power of transformative leadership.


Image: University of Alabama Athletics 

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