What’s different about this year’s kickoff of the college football season is the amount of attention being given to Nick Saban’s coaching philosophy. He’s become a topic of discussion not only in the sports press but in the business press.  I guess that’s what happens when you win the national championship two out of the last three years with a track record of success that stretches back even farther. America loves a winner.

It’s easy to want to imitate Saban now.  Who wouldn’t want to be the top of his field, winning championships, having people study you for your magic tricks, and earning millions every year? Like I said, America loves a winner.

But rewind a couple of decades. Before you won a conference or a bowl game or a championship.  Before the national reporters came to your office asking earnest questions about every detail of your thoughts and behavior.  Before any of that.

Imagine you’re the young coach going to your athletic director and saying, “I’d like some money to hire a sports psychologist to help our team prepare mentally for games. And while I’m at it, I’d like to get an academic coach to help the guys excel in school. Oh, and one last thing: I’m going to need more travel budget because I believe in evaluating recruits based on watching them in person instead of watching film.  You just can’t judge a player’s potential accurately on film.”

You what?

Here’s what sets Saban apart. He had the courage of his convictions to develop and sell what he now calls The Process before anyone knew who he was.  He believed in something big and that led him to swing hard. I don’t live in Saban’s head, so I don’t know what was happening in his mind.  But for most people, swinging that hard raises a few fears:

  • What if this doesn’t work? – Remember, America loves a winner. What happens when we swing hard and it doesn’t work out? What if Saban had successfully pitched The Process but it yielded mediocre results? He’d be a nobody.  Worse yet, he probably would have lost that early job.
  • What if this does work? – We all say we want success but it brings its own set of problems. It brings scrutiny. It brings the fear of losing our precious and new-found reputation.  I remember a time early in my career when I was absolutely fearless. I was a nobody and no one expected anything from me. Then I had some success. I got to walk on stages. I got respectful phone calls from colleagues. I was on the map. Seasoned high performers talked to me knowingly. “Yup, you’ve learned The Fear. You have something to lose now.” They know that because, while America loves a winner, America also loves to take down a winner.

Nearly every ambitious person and organization lives with these fears. What makes some of them take big swings anyway?  I think they do it because some deeper conviction drives them.  They may hang in there in mediocre roles or in distasteful environments for a while, shackled by fears. But then a conviction that they’ve been restraining inside them bursts its bonds and takes over. They decide that this thing they believe in so deeply just can’t be held back anymore.

Then it’s time to watch out. They’re going to do something.  They’re going to walk into the AD’s office and ask for that crazy resource. They’re going to stand in front of boosters and ask for an insane amount of sacrificial money. They’re going to demand unusual commitment from their colleagues and staff. Here’s why: the thought of not acting on those convictions is more frightening than the thought of facing their normal fear of falling on their faces.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure Nick Saban thought through the elements of The Process very carefully with an eye toward creating a winning program. You don’t get to stick around if you don’t win games any more than an executive team gets to stick around if they don’t produce profits. But I would guess that Saban sees wins as an extension of his philosophy, not the sole outcome of it.

So as you head into your next strategic planning season, maybe you and your team can think about a few questions raised by a jock’s story:

  • What’s your core philosophy? What are the underlying web of choices that really drive your decisions?
  • What convictions do you stand behind even when the numbers look bad?
  • What fears are holding you back? Are they legit fears or should you ignore them?
  • When is the last time you went to your stakeholders with a bold plan that drives you toward your vision and requires the very best from everyone? How much does it break the mold?