Giants and Knights: Viewing the Leadership Journey

(Reprint from Spring 2008)

Tom Coughlin. Bobby Knight. Both are names you might recognize; they’re coaches whose unique -- even controversial -- coaching styles have led to great success.

Coach Coughlin adapted to team needs

Coughlin is known for his “if you’re not five minutes early you’re already late” and “no white socks with dress slacks” rules for his professional football teams. His traditional style challenged his team to change and adapt their ways to his norm, yet his disciplinarian style left him disconnected from his 2006-2007 team and caused discontent among the players. Given another year to turn the team around, Coughlin made some key modifications:

  • He listened to the feedback and intentionally became more approachable, forming a team leadership council to get input from players. The council gave players insight into what the coach was thinking and why, and it gave them a sense of involvement that led to buy-in.
  • He began to look like he enjoyed his job - even smiling more often. In press conferences he used words like “fun” and “enjoy. ” He took the team bowling during the preseason.

Coughlin’s changes were not extreme, yet they changed the team’s dynamic to one of high morale and unity.

Coach Knight put his beliefs into practice

Volumes have been written on Bobby Knight’s leadership style, though two key points stand high above the rest:

  1. Knight has led by his values: discipline, effort, execution, and dedication. He lives what he believes. His dedication extends to his players past and present, which his record of a 98% graduation rate among his four-year players demonstrates.
  2. Knight is loyal. His loyalties include his inner circle of friends, past players, and causes he believes in. When coaching at Indiana University, Knight was known to show up in the children’s wards of the local hospitals to spend time with kids and their families.

What their examples show us

Coughlin coached the New York Giants well enough for the team to turn its mediocre season into a 2008 Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. Knight is the winningest men’s coach in NCAA basketball history. Both men are leaders. Both men are intense, no-nonsense individuals. Both have earned reputations for their firebrand, disciplinarian, and controlling coaching styles.

Both are also examples that teach us about personal uniqueness and leadership:

  • Good leaders are never too old to learn, to listen to feedback, to be introspective, and to adapt in order to best lead.
  • Leadership involves buy-in. If you’re leading and no one is following, then you’re not actually leading. You need involvement and interaction. Be a strong leader, but be human.
  • There is no cookie cutter leadership style. Authentic leadership must be a reflection of who we truly are - and that style must also be able to adapt to the team’s needs.
  • Leadership involves loyalty and care.

What are some effective leaders or style you’ve found helpful? What are some ways you’ve adjusted your own leadership approach to better lead your team?