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Charlie Strong & Leading Change: Transforming Longhorn Football

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Strong said something today that impressed me.  The comment reminded me that he's following a transformational blueprint I've seen before.  But that blueprint came from a Harvard academic writing a business book, not from an "unpolished" football coach from rural Arkansas.

Here's Charlie's quote that jarred my realization:

That whole attitude has to change, we know that, as a football team. This program will never change, the culture won't change until the attitude of the players change. That's what we're seeking to do each and every day. As far as leadership, our guys know, our seniors know it's got to come -- right now it's coming from the coaches.  I told them yesterday at some point they have to buy into it, and the seniors have got to take over the leadership of this football team.

When I was a more traditional corporate monkey division manager leading a sales team, I used to read business books.  Most of them were terrible, faddish, full of nonsense jargon and packed with awesome observations like "Leaders lead!"  A few stuck with me.  One of them was a book called Leading Change, by Harvard management professor John Kotter. It was slim, plainly written and if you've ever taken over a messed up team and improved them or seen an organization through a tough transition, its message is practical and applicable.

Here's the central premise for transformation from Leading Change.

From Harvard Business Review

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That's it.

As you skim through those eight points, you'll probably find yourself making mental check marks next to each and thinking of the obvious examples since Strong's hire.  He's executing it perfectly.

Strong is following this transformational playbook (instinctively - doubt he's read it) and his awareness that he can't change the culture unless the player's institutionalize it and inculcate it amongst each other is a pretty sophisticated understanding of how organizations work.  A lot of very talented corporate types bungle this idea, mistaking their personality cult for a culture.  Most coaches think they are the culture.  It will simply form up around their whims because of who they are. Charlie's old boss Urban Meyer found that out at Florida when he recruited a critical mass of thugs.  Joe Paterno, anyone?

Charlie Strong can't change Texas Football.  He can craft a vision, communicate relentlessly, recruit to it and teach it, but ultimately the players define and disseminate culture.  Until they're actively doing so, nothing is really going to change.  Mack Brown stopped having player led teams in 2010.  Coincidence?

Steps 4-8 have to keep happening again and again because organizations constantly renew.  The team culture has to be reinforced and reborn to handle attrition.  There will be periods of retrenchment, retreat and consolidation, but that's simply how groups function.  As long as the culture is lived, embodied, delegated and modeled with fervor, you will eventually get the results you want.

An example of some of that modeling, in word and deed from the same press conference?

What's a Texas practice look like now...

We won't go in the bubble.  We'll be outside.  It's heat.  We have to deal with it.

So now we're going offense versus -- any time there's a situation with offense versus defense, I expect we go full speed.  Then when they go individual, that's when they can cut down.

The culture he inherited...

The culture that you step into was you look at a team and look at a group of seniors that hasn't had a double digit winning season since they've been here, and then you just look at some things that we had to do academically, where a lot of guys had to get on board academically.  Once you change it in the classroom, then you'll be able to change it on the football field.

You can't feel entitled because you're The University of Texas, that I have a right. No, at no point do we have a right.  No one's ever going to give you anything.  We're going to have to continue to work for everything we get.

Congrats, Charlie.  If this coaching thing doesn't work out, I may be able to get you tenure at Harvard.

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