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Leading Strong: Lessons on Leadership from UT Longhorns Coach Charlie Strong

“Discipline, mental and physical toughness and accountability are keys that you must build your program around. If you’re disciplined, prepare the right way and have a razor focus, you will be successful.”

– Charlie Strong, Head Football Coach, The University of Texas

With values like discipline, toughness, focus and accountability, it’s no secret that new UT Longhorns Coach Charlie Strong is known for his “swagger” and his no-nonsense leadership approach. Some speculate that his harsh attitude will turn great players away, while others believe it’s just what UT needs for recruiting and strengthening the best of the best players.

While that debate will take time to play out, let’s take a look at how Strong’s leadership style might help or hurt your own approach in the workplace. In other words, are you “Strong” enough to be a good leader?

Authoritarian

“The players are in for an offseason of uncomfortable, in the best way possible,” wrote Max Olson of ESPN, who pointed out that “tough” and “toughness” are words Strong used 11 times during his introductory UT press conference.

It’s this “fear factor” that’s at the center of the debate over Strong’s leadership style. Will it help UT in recruiting and keeping players, or hurt recruiting? It’s been widely reported that Strong has high expectations for his Longhorn players off the field as well, expecting that they exhibit stellar academic behavior and live on campus for the majority of their college careers as well as other “rules of the road” that will certainly be a wakeup call for some.

The secret to why so many are banking on it working at UT can be explained by perhaps one of the most classic leadership studies by Kurt Lewin from 1939. Lewin identified three main types of leadership styles: authoritarian, participative and delegative. Authoritarian leadership clearly defines superiority and expectations within a group; certainly the leadership style that most closely resembles Strong’s strategy. In sports, this works well. In a corporate setting, however, proceed with caution. It can be detrimental to creativity and democratic decision-making. Among the Lewin leadership styles, participative leadership is generally found to be most effective, as it involves gentle guidance with group input.

Charismatic

“We will recruit with fire, recruit with passion,” Strong said about his focus for UT Longhorns Football. How exactly will he win over these new recruits? “He is intense and charismatic,” UT Regent Bobby Stillwell stated, according to the Dallas Morning News. Stillwell was a member of the eight-person advisory committee that selected Strong. He immediately followed that statement with a telling observation: “I wouldn’t want to be the player to explain something to him after I messed up.”

Therein lays the advantage – and disadvantage – of charismatic, passionate leadership.

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., wrote about the importance of charismatic leadership in Psychology Today, pointing out that its highest value may be for organizations in transition, much like the UT Longhorns Football program.

“Transformational leaders are charismatic, but they are also noted for leading high performing groups and teams, and developing followers’ leadership capacity, as much as helping the group or organization to change and innovate,” he writes. He goes on to explain a delicate balance is needed for charismatic leaders to be effective, which could be the paradox in which Stillwell eluded.

“The biggest thing that can derail a leader is arrogance,” he writes, “and a lack of concern or responsiveness to followers and constituents.” Instead, charisma works best when balanced by four other leadership components:

  • Idealized influence (walking the walk)
  • Inspirational motivation (showing commitment and passion for the organization at a high level)
  • Intellectual stimulation (challenging followers to be creative)
  • Individualized consideration (being responsive to the feelings and developmental needs of followers)

For those who feel they lack a certain charm in this area, there’s good news: Charisma can be learned. Riggio states that plenty of research points to charisma as being more of “a process” and that even great leadership in general is about 2/3 “made” and 1/3 “born.”

Pacesetter

“Can you go run the football? You know at the end of the day, you have to line up and run the ball, and that is going to be built just within the toughness of your program,” Strong has said, adding that the program under his leadership “will be a program built on great accountability and great responsibility.”

There’s no doubt that Strong has a clear vision of excellence for his organization. And, from what we’ve witnessed, his standards for each and every player on his team are stretched higher than ever before. Daniel Goleman, author of “Primal Leadership” calls this type of leadership style ‘pacesetting.’ While setting aggressively high standards for performance can work in a football program, Goleman warns that “more often than not, pacesetting poisons the climate” when it comes to a corporate environment.

According to Goleman, pacesetting leadership is at its best within a highly motivated and high-performing team, which is why it works for Strong. The problem with pacesetting in a corporate environment occurs when expectations are high and guidance on how to reach those expectations is low. Star performers rise to the top while others scramble to “figure it out,” leading to a climate fraught with emotional exhaustion and defeat.

As we said earlier, time will tell how Coach Strong’s leadership style will impact UT Longhorns Football. But what about your own leadership style: What clues can you uncover about its effectiveness or ineffectiveness? Are there areas in which you could “up your game” to increase your own recruiting and retention success?

Image credit: wolterk / 123RF Stock Photo

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