This past Monday we celebrated President’s Day and I reflected on lessons coaches can learn from my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is my favorite president because of his leadership, toughness, humor, and humility. All Americans can learn quite a bit from him, and this week I’ll takes lessons I’ve learned from the reading I’ve completed on him and apply them to coaching.
The first lesson is to welcome different points of view. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s [amazon-product text=”Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” type=”text”]0743270754[/amazon-product], she explains how Lincoln surrounded himself with people of different points of view. Lincoln asked his ex-political rivals to join his cabinet and help him during his presidency. The ex-rivals grew to accept, love, and admire Lincoln and his leadership. They were able to speak and advise without fear, and that is because Lincoln truly valued their opinions. In the coaching profession, one must welcome differing opinions and not shy away from them. Often times it is hard for a coach to hear something that is not within the same line of thinking, but many times it helps. Many times we as coaches are afraid when game planning or making halftime adjustments to hear or implement strategies that differ from our line of thinking. Coaches should surround themselves with assistants who are willing to offer a different viewpoint. Assistants should be encouraged to have and bring up differing views and ideas. When this occurs, the coaching staff becomes prepared for different scenarios and can put the team in the best possible position to win. This can often be difficult because it involves a willingness to check egos, but it is necessary in order to maximize potential.
While gathering different views on issues, President Lincoln ultimately had the final say. Lincoln had to make bold decisions while in office. One of his decisions was to remove General McClellan as Commander of the Union Army. He had given McClellan every opportunity to succeed and had shown an unbelievable amount of patience with him. Finally, Lincoln had enough of McClellan’s indecisiveness and removed him. His bold decision to do so and replace him with General Grant led the Union Army to victory. As coaches, we must be bold in our line of thinking and decision-making. Many times playing it safe does not pay off. If you want a big reward, it often involves a big risk. This is something I learned this past basketball season and something I am going to remember for future seasons. Too many times as coaches we fear change when we need to embrace it. Look at what making a bold change did for the Harbaugh brothers this past football season: it led both of them to the Superbowl. One replaced the starting quarterback midway through the season and the other fired and replaced the offensive coordinator during the final stages of the regular season. Being bold pays off.
Furthermore, any leadership position comes with praise and blame. Lincoln was exceptional at sharing the praise and blame that came with being president. When he would receive praise for decisions he made, Lincoln was quick to share the success with his cabinet members. This is what helped turn rivalries into great friendships. It was never about himself with Lincoln; it was always about what was best for his country. And he understood that included sharing success with his cabinet members. Lincoln was also quick to take on blame for mistakes that people working in his cabinet and other positions under him made. Coaches should follow this model because it shows true leadership and helps to get everyone working towards the common goal. As coaches it should never be about “I.” It should always be about “we.” We should always be quick to give players and other coaches credit. It sounds terrible when a coach is interviewed about a win and says “I did this.” True and effective leadership shares success. On the other hand, great coaches know they must accept blame as well. As with any leadership position, blame will be placed when things don’t go well. Whether it’s warranted or not, great coaches know that it comes with the territory and they accept it. My advice is to use the criticism as motivation. Let the doubt push you to greatness.
Another great lesson anyone can take from Lincoln is to control your emotions. I have read in several books how President Lincoln would write “Hot Letters.” These were scathing letters written to individuals or about recent events that had made Lincoln furious. The great thing was is that the letters never saw the light of day. Lincoln would always destroy the letters before anyone saw them. This practice allowed Lincoln to control his anger and think clearly. It was a wise practice because he worked out his anger while never insulting a peer. I’ve learned from my mistakes to never hit send on an email without giving it time. In today’s age we communicate too much through email and text and it is impossible to get the true context from written word. It is much better to meet with people in person. But when we do get fired up and emotional about something, it would be wise to follow Lincoln’s “Hot Letter” practice. A good coach knows they must never act on impulse when making significant decisions. It is always best to sleep on it, especially when decisions involve player discipline, parent concerns, and direction of the team.
A final trait to learn is that a leader must be a good communicator. Lincoln had very little formal schooling, but he became a self-taught man. He read and re-read many books making himself as educated as possible. Lincoln went to local parlors where he practiced and perfected the art of storytelling. He became renowned for his verbal and written communication skills. As a coach one must be able to communicate. This is a lifelong process. We as coaches must continue working on our craft. One thing I have to remember is that as I get older, the bridge in age between me and my players becomes larger. I must be able to reach them and get on their level. Great communicators and coaches know their audience and how to reach them. As coaches we must be clear, concise, and inspiring. It also helps to have a sense of humor and show it. Lincoln won people over with his sense of humor. One of his critics once called Lincoln “two faced.” The president responded by saying, “Sir, if I really had two faces, do you think I would choose to wear this one?” Humor brings people together and puts the crowd at ease. Players need to see your true personality. The more they know you on a personal level, they more they can relate to you. This often leads to a deeper sense of attachment and commitment within a program.
The goal for this week is to lead like Lincoln. All of us are leaders in some capacity and can better ourselves by taking Lincoln’s lead.
Thanks for reading, have a great week, and be an RGP today!