Timothy R. Clark: What I learned from LaVell Edwards

LaVell Edwards needs no introduction. He has taken his place in the pantheon of pigskin generals. As a hall-of-famer, he is accorded legend status, a distinction reserved for a small, elite fraternity of coaches who break from the ranks and set themselves apart.

It’s one thing to win a championship. It’s an entirely different matter to win over and over, year in and year out, to make winning the norm, to cast a culture whose very DNA is engineered to win, to create muscle memory in an institution so that its natural motion propels it to victory.

Most coaches have winning moments. Coach Edwards created a winning era. Let me put this in perspective.

In 29 years as head football coach at BYU, Coach Edwards posted only one losing season. Legends build legacies, and then there’s everybody else. You get the point.

As a cultural artifact, football is a piece of Americana. It’s a game of strategy and toughness. It’s a game of performance and accountability. The yardstick by which we measure success in this rarefied world is simple — the win column. If you notch wins, you stay. If you don’t, you move on.

We lionize the winners and forget about the losers, but that’s just my preamble. What about the rest of the story?

Coach Edwards did more than just win football games. Let me tell you about the LaVell Edwards I played for, the LaVell Edwards I watched, observed and studied. As a player, I took mental notes for four years because I knew that I had been given the opportunity to be a part of something special.

Indeed, I was learning at the feet of one of the greats, and the lessons being taught extended far beyond the gridiron. Coach Edwards was in the leadership development business. On the ground and in the trenches, he never ceased to teach, and only when necessary did he use words.

Here are just three of the many leadership lessons he taught:

Manage your emotions for performance

Coach Edwards was a model of poise under pressure. Regardless of the situation, his outward expression of leadership was calm and confident. Long experience had tutored him to understand that the emotions of fear, anxiety, anger and frustration are almost always counterproductive in helping an organization achieve its goals. In most cases, the mismanagement of emotions is damaging and only increases the risk of failure, especially when people are fatigued and falling behind.

As an organization runs at maximum exertion and draws down its energy reserves, it becomes more vulnerable to discouragement and self-doubt. While everyone is human, the leader must maintain focus in the midst of adversity. Rest assured, there will be adversity and there will be failures. We lost some heartbreakers, but those were the times when Coach Edwards became the repository of our fears and the hope of our renewed efforts.

His focus was on the goal and the development of the players, not on himself. Contrast that with leaders who indulge in negative emotions that lower the productive capacity of their organizations.

Yes, people respond to threats and melodrama in the short term. But over 29 years? Don’t think so. Ultimately, high performance is based on a willing offering of discretionary effort. Only a leader’s managed, controlled and checked emotional performance will motivate people to do their best work — hence, his unflappable demeanor. He didn’t make use of the customary power tools that we see so much of in the prevailing culture of football. No screaming. No profanity. No head games. No manipulation — just rock-jawed poise.

Seek unedited self-awareness

Some people believe in the distinction between a private reality and a public image. Coach Edwards would laugh at such a notion. He was eminently aware of his amplified public role, but he didn’t spend time cultivating a separate persona for public consumption. He simply achieved a high level of self-awareness and then was true to himself in every situation.

Becoming a leader is a process in which the scales of limited self-awareness gradually fall from our eyes, but it doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a consequence of developing a listening ear to feedback. It’s a willingness to have a truthful encounter with the unvarnished truth of oneself. Coach Edwards saw himself in the response of others to him. He was exceptionally attuned to his modeling influence and his ability to scale impact. There was humility in his interactions. As a coach he was self-possessed but not arrogant.

You’ve heard it said that infatuation clouds judgment. I would argue that infatuation with oneself clouds judgment even more. Some coaches, for instance, become single-member mutual admiration societies. That’s when it gets dangerous.

Coach Edwards maintained his self-awareness through modesty and self-restraint. He was keenly aware that everyone was watching his every move. Because there was no distinction between the private citizen and the public figure, he wasn’t confused, and neither were his players.

Care about players more than the game

I learned from Coach Edwards that notions of professional distance and stuffy paternalism are silly concepts that engage and inspire no one. In disposition, Coach Edwards was disarming, pleasant, friendly and self-effacing. He was genuinely interested in his players, not just the X’s and O’s.

After practice, we’d be at the training table (cafeteria) eating dinner as a team and Coach Edwards would be doing his trademark ritual, making the rounds with a bowl of tapioca pudding in his hands.

On Sunday mornings when we were banged up and sitting in ice baths, he would do his rounds again to inspect the wounded and give a word of encouragement. Why? Because we needed it.

You see, football is a reflection of life. It’s just a more transparent plane. If you play Division I football, your chance of injury is 100 percent. The only question is severity. But that’s not unlike any other field of endeavor. We all take some pretty rough shots, and it doesn’t hurt to have a leader around who cares when you get the soup knocked out of you.

Some leaders obsess on a need to be large and in charge. What a tragedy to live on the dark side of charisma. What a shame to repel people with a false sense of openness. Coach Edwards made it abundantly clear that it’s impossible to build an organization and summon its institutional will if you don’t really like people. You may get lucky and win a championship, but you’ll end up leaving a landfill, not a legacy.

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During his career, Coach Edwards earned a room full of trophies and a bag full of garish championship rings — the customary emblems of the win column. More than that, he earned the admiration, respect and loyalty of a generation of broken down football players who stand when a man called LaVell enters the room.

John Quincy Adams observed, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

To my old coach, that stone-faced visage, that genuine article, that iconic builder of men who mentored so many, I salute you.

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are “The Leadership Test” and “Epic Change.” E-mail: trclark@trclarkpartners

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