Oct 082015 3 Responses

Nick Saban: Five Leadership Lessons

Some revere him while others can’t stand him. Yet no one questions the success of Nick Saban. With four national championships, five SEC championships, and the return of Alabama football to its place as the premiere college football program in the NCAA, every one knows Nick Saban is a tremendous football coach.

While I enjoy watching football, I’m fascinated by effective leaders. Without question, Saban is effective. I’m sure there are several attributes I would not want to emulate, but Saban clearly does many things right. (See:  Seven Leadership Lessons from Gus Malzahn)

Here are five leadership lessons from Nick Saban:

1. Make routine decisions habitual so they don’t require mental energy. Saban famously eats two Oatmeal Creme Pies for breakfast every morning. He also eats the same salad every day for lunch. It’s not that he wouldn’t enjoy a more varied diet; he eats the same thing so he doesn’t have to spend a single second debating what he wants for breakfast or lunch.

We only have so much mental energy. It’s limited. In the same way that a dollar spent in one area prevents the same dollar being spent in another area, time spent making one decision is time NOT spent making another. Every time we create a good habit, we free our minds to spend time on other issues. (See: Start Making Good Decisions)


What routine decisions do you spend an inordinate amount of time on? What habit can you create to end the debate?

2. Focus on the process over the outcome. Every great leader I know is fascinated by the process. Nearly every follower is obsessed with outcomes. This may be the defining factor between a successful leader and an unsuccessful one. Saban is notorious for immediately returning to work after winning a National Championship. While he might need to reflect on the dangers of being a work-aholic, part of his work ethic is his love for the process of winning.

Outcomes are one-time events; processes are repeated. We can luck into a good outcome or have an unfortunate turn of events which prevents a good outcome. But processes can’t be faked. Our teams, businesses, and lives are defined by the processes we choose.


Do you or your team spend too much time focused on the outcomes at the expense of the processes?

What processes are the most important to experience the outcomes you desire?

3. Be willing to hire toward your weakness. Hiring (and firing) is one of the most difficult aspects about leadership. I once had a mentor tell me, if you do all the diligent work in the hiring process, there is a 50/50 chance the hire will work out. If you fail to do all your diligent work, it is nearly guaranteed a new hire will not be a good one. Because hiring is difficult, leaders often make one of two mistakes: they either hire someone just like them or they are afraid to hire someone better than them. (See: You Don’t Have to Do It on Your Own)

While Saban is the best coach in football, he isn’t afraid to hire people with different strengths than him. Saban shocked many last year when he hired outspoken Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin. In many ways, Kiffin is everything Saban is not–outspoken, brash, etc. Yet Saban respected Kiffin’s offensive mind and understood Kiffin had several strengths to bring to the organization.

It’s vital key people have similar core beliefs, but it’s equally useful for a team to have a variety of strengths and weaknesses.


Does your team look exactly like you?

What is your greatest weakness? Does one of your key team members have that quality as their greatest strength?

4. Control the story. Saban is a master in handling the media. Every season he goes on a rant or two in order to divert the media’s attention away from one story-line and to redirect it back to what he believes is important. Too many leaders fail to understand the importance of narrative. The story that your co-workers, clients, or stockholders believe determines how they feel. If a leader isn’t influencing the story, they are failing to influence their people. (See: Leadership–Learning to Take a Punch)

A leader should never lie or manipulate the narrative, but they should regularly influence the story people believe. By sharing the right information, inviting people into the decision-making process, and calling people’s attention to the big story, a leader can control the story.


How do others feel about the organization you lead? Co-workers? Clients? Outsiders? Is the story they have written the right one?

What information could you share which would encourage others or positively change the story they have written?

5. Everything matters. Saban is often viewed as a micro-manager. While the term is normally viewed as a negative, for Saban it’s listed as a strength. In his view, everything matters. There is nothing so minor or inconsequential that it is out of his site of concern. Everything speaks to the culture of the organization, influences the people involved, and plays a role in determining success and failure.

Many leaders overlook the importance of “little things.” Saban does not make that mistake. Whether it be how a defensive back takes his first step after the snap or how a reporter writes a story about the team, everything matters to Saban. And everything should matter to a leader. (See: Sometimes You Need to be a Jerk)


What details have your overlooked to your detriment?

What small details are having a major impact on your goals?

Nick Saban fascinates me. As an avid golfer, he would likely be a participant in my dream leadership foursome. These are five lessons I’ve learned by watching him from afar.

Who is a leader you have never met, but have gained valuable leadership lessons by watching?

3 Responses to Nick Saban: Five Leadership Lessons
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