Coaching Football's "Little Things"

Developing a Consistently Successful Football Program

Studies in Leadership: Robert E. Lee

Posted by admin March - 23 - 2021 - Tuesday

I’m not here to discuss politics. I’m not here to discuss history. I’m here to help coaches become better coaches. There are those out there who want to do nothing more than “stir things up” by trying to create controversy. I’m not one of them. Robert E. Lee was an outstanding commander. Rarely in the annals of US history are you going to find a more effective leader. It doesn’t matter which “side” he was on. What does matter is: did he possess and display leadership qualities that we as coaches can learn from? That’s it… bottom line.

What made Lee such an outstanding leader? First and foremost, he had excellent leadership training. Anyone who graduates from one of America’s military academies (Lee graduated from West Point) is going to receive outstanding leadership training. This is why I always encourage young (and old!) coaches to be “students of the game.” Be a life-long learner. In April of 1999, the spring prior to coming back into full-time coaching as an OC, I set up a meeting with an outstanding Wing T coach in our area. He was surprised that an “old ball coach” wanted to learn from him. I told him just what I’m telling you: “Never stop studying your craft. You can always walk away with one tid bit of info that might help you win a game!

Lee was passionate about his cause. Whether you agree with his decision to resign his commission in the US Army and support the Army of Virginia or not (*and just for historical accuracy here… Lee’s passion was for his home state. In the mid 1800’s, there was an entirely different attitude about your home state and how much it meant to you compared to today. Most of us cannot appreciate the love that Lee had for Virginia.) Lee’s cause that he was passionate about was defending his home. All of us know how effective Nike’s slogan was about “Protect This House!” I know that we used it any number of times when I coached.

The best motivators grant their officers (assistant coaches) independence and responsibility. Of course, that means that first a “commander” has to build a cadre of officers whom he can trust. Once they prove their loyalty and ability, then a HC can begin to delegate. Lee had that knack of finding great leaders among his officer corps. Once he found them, he was confident in giving them orders— knowing that they would carry them out.

With that in mind, a leader needs to “find his Stonewall.” Find an assistant coach whom you trust and (this is important) shares your vision for how you want to run your program. Then… turn him lose. For 16 years, I was fortunate to have an assistant coach who gave his all to me and to our program. It was easy to let him “do his thing” because I knew that the values that I held were the ones that he was instilling in his linemen.

In turn, then, Lee consulted his subordinates. He would talk through alternative approaches and gave his staff the opportunity to explain their views. Lee didn’t always agree with his staff but he did listen. This is the best teaching tool that a HC possesses. The off-season is the perfect time to “test” an assistant coach and see if he can handle a responsibility. You need to discover it then— not in the midst of the battle!

Lee was quoted as saying that “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.” I think it’s becoming apparent that a KEY to success if building an effective leadership team. This holds true for players also. Be careful when selecting Captains or your Leadership Council that you don’t allow it to be a “popularity contest.” You are looking for leaders.

Finally, Lee was an effective communicator. He learned through trial and error during the Mexican War in the 1940’s that strategic plans (game plan for coaches) need to simple and direct. When plans become complicated, progress is impeded. When a HC communicates to his assistants, it needs to be clear and concise.

Lee and the Confederate army held a superior (in number) Army of the North at bay for over 2 years because Lee was the better general. He employed strategies and tactics that the Northern generals failed to employ— that is, until Ulysses Grant took charge. *I shared Grant’s leadership skills several weeks ago. Grant knew that all he had to do was “ground and pound.” He was the first to strategically use his superior numbers to overwhelm Lee’s forces. As we say in football, Grant “enforced his will” upon his opponent. He wore Lee’s army down and finally forced them to capitulate. To Lee’s credit, he out-maneuvered and out-foxed the Union generals until Lincoln put Grant in command.

What have we learned here? Create an effective staff. A HC can’t do it all on his own. Once you have that effective staff in place, learn to lean on them. It is a KEY to success for any organization.

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