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Learning from A Master: Review of "Bear Bryant, CEO"
Richard Truman. 2006. Bear Bryant, CEO. Sweetwater Press.
Legendary coaches are great sources of inspiration and wisdom, and Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, the iconic coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide from the late 1950s through the early 1980s, is revered as something approaching a minor deity in the state of Alabama. There is a museum named for him at the University of Alabama (my alma mater), and every year adds a new pile of books to the literature on the man and his legacy. Last Christmas, I was given a copy of Bear Bryant, CEO, a short volume that compiles anecdotes and quotes from the great coach’s career. As one might expect, it’s a very easy read, and its contents are a great source of inspiration even when they are almost creepily reverential at times. There is much we can take away from the book, and even if you aren’t an Alabama football fan you might find it useful. Here are a few takeaway points.
Fundamentals Matter. Bryant, “the master of hard work and determination” (p. 7), was obsessed with perfect fundamentals. This paid off handsomely everywhere he went and culminated in six national championships during his tenure at the University of Alabama. Sound fundamentals mean not having to think about the basics and, therefore, having more time and energy to devote to higher-level creative projects.
Principles Matter. Bryant was also devoted to principle in part because of the way compromising his principles would change incentives. When it was suggested by higher-ups that Bryant compromise his principles at the University of Maryland, he resigned instead. This didn’t seem to affect his job prospects: he left Maryland for the University of Kentucky and went on to become one of the most successful and revered coaches in the history of sports.
Details and Delegation. Bryant also noticed the little things and delegated authority where necessary, all the while shouldering blame when things went wrong and making absolutely certain that everyone knew that he was the boss. The book relates a story about Bryant talking to one of his assistant coaches before a game. Bryant notices that the wind is a little peculiar and suggests that his assistant take this into consideration. This illustrates a couple of important things. First, Bryant paid attention to a small detail that might matter. Second, he has delegated its analysis to a trusted subordinate. This allows him, as head coach, to focus on bigger and more important issues.
Just Do It. Bryant was a doer, not a dreamer, and he expected nothing less from his players: “(i)t’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.” This was also reflected on a plaque Bryant allegedly had in his home: “Ask God to bless your work. Do not ask Him to do it for you.”
Know What Your Time is Worth. Bryant was extremely conscientious about making the best use of his time. A poem Bryant was fond of sharing with friends is entitled “What I Have Traded”:
This is the beginning of a new day.
God has given me this day to use as I will.
I can waste it or I can use it for good.
What I do today is very important because I’m exchanging a day of my life for it.
When tomorrow comes this day will be gone, forever,
Leaving something in its place I have traded for it.
I want it to be gain, not loss, good, not evil,
Success, not failure, in order that I shall not
forget the price I paid for it.
For Bryant, every minute of every day was precious. It’s difficult to imagine him (or, say, Joe Paterno) frittering away a morning on Facebook.
Always Evaluate What You’re Doing and Don’t Be Afraid to Change. As the 1970s started, Bryant’s Alabama teams had weathered a few down years and people were wondering if Bryant was washed up. A few weeks before the start of the 1971 season, he installed the wishbone offense. This set the stage for unprecedented dominance as the Crimson Tide went on to compile a record of 103-16-1 in the 1970s.
There is much to be learned about productivity and discipline from great coaches like Bear Bryant, John Wooden, Woody Hayes, and others. Bear Bryant, CEO is an interesting contribution to the “management and leadership lessons from coaches” genre, and it will probably be interesting even to people aren’t Alabama Crimson Tide devotees.
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