Leadership and Rat Poison
On January 11, 2021, Nick Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team, won the NCAA Division I national championship for the seventh time—eclipsing legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant’s record of six championships. Saban became Alabama’s—and the nation’s—all-time greatest college football coach. Saban has established a spectacular dynasty during his 14 years as head coach at Alabama, winning six of the past 12 national championships and cementing his status as the GOAT (greatest of all time).
In the traditional press interviews after the game, a reporter doggedly tried to get Saban to reflect on his success, coming at the question from various angles, but the great coach consistently demurred, calling attention time and again to the achievement of his players. In words and implications, the GOAT made it clear that his project had nothing to do with personal success. His only concern is the addition of value to the lives of his players. He has designed his coaching process to reward the efforts of his players, some of whom will gain monetary value by achieving a high status in the National Football league draft. Other players will gain fame in the state of Alabama, which they can parlay into business and personal opportunities. All of them will gain personal discipline, teamwork values, a commitment to perseverance, an experience of achievement, and a standard of excellence that will inform their futures and enhance their success in life.
Consistently, Saban refused to take any credit for the new championship or any of the past ones. The whole matter centered on the players. He showed no interest at all in self-aggrandizement. Perhaps the $9.5 million annual salary he receives from the university offers compensation enough, but his selflessness in victory factors heavily in his total net worth as a leader.
Perhaps many leaders who watched Nick Saban that night rued any past occasion on which they had taken personal credit for the success of their team. Leadership certainly gives leaders many opportunities to use the word “I,” and the temptation usually leads to error. Great leaders do not succumb to vainglory. True glory comes from the efforts of the team. When we see our people doing the best work they have ever done, we can feel proud of them. When the team wins, our own victory makes up the least interesting part of the story, and not the heart of it.
Such an attitude begets selflessness in the team. On the way to the championship game, three players figured highly in the deliberations for who would win the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most celebrated honor. The quarterback, the toughest running back, and the most reliable wide receiver all had Heisman-level statistics. The press pitted all three against each other for who would win the trophy. Not once could anyone get any of the players to argue that he deserved the trophy more than the others. They had been taught by Coach Saban that all of that press attention and hype is “rat poison” that will swell their heads and destroy the teamwork that wins championships. All three players eschewed the tempting morsels that contained the poison, and on the final day of the season, the coach wasn’t having any either.
Self-glory is rat poison to leaders. May we all learn to abstain from it.