Saban vs. Dabo? Are they really that different?

Before I launch into this week’s article, I want to send my best wishes to all of you for a wonderful Thanksgiving. Working in our business provides so much to be grateful for. Even as our business becomes more challenging, I doubt there are many of us who would change careers. We’re blessed to work in an exciting business, loaded with change and with challenge. It’s a whole lot more interesting and fun than what most people get to do for their jobs. Look around your Thanksgiving table and see if there’s anyone you’d like to switch careers with. My table will have some very successful people and a couple who have created huge wealth, but I don’t think they’ve had anywhere near as cool a career as someone in our business.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. I’m grateful for all the wonderful gifts our clients and this industry have provided to our company and to me. Thank you!


My trainer, Paul Butler, loves football and loves to talk football. He’s a former player and used to coach, so he’s a pretty knowledgeable guy on the subject.

A couple of weeks ago, right after that amazing LSU win over Alabama, we started talking about the different styles of big-time football coaches. Paul went on at some length about how very different the styles were of the most successful coaches. The LSU coach, Ed Orgeron, is very emotional. His players love him. If you watch a player come off the field after a good play (or even a mistake), he’s there for them—physically engaged. After the Alabama game, he was chastised for a little profanity-laden speech to his team that was recorded. His motivational style is also emotional, and press reports say that he punches himself in the face… hard… “at least once a week” to push his players to get in their opponent’s faces.

Nick Saban is just about the opposite. If Orgeron is “hot” then Saban is “cool.” Emotional? Not really. His style is described as “autocratic.” Everything is about his system, called “the process." I’ve read that if a player wants to meet with the coach, he has to request time, and it’s likely he won’t actually get a meeting with Coach Saban. He’ll probably meet with an assistant.

Dabo Swinney is the charismatic and highly successful Clemson coach. He’s probably closer to Orgeron in style than to Saban. In his first year, after being promoted mid-season from a receiver coach to head coach, he coined the phrase “all in” to set his expectations for everyone who was part of their program. “All in” has been the driving principle behind Clemson’s success ever since.

Spend a little bit of time reading about these three great coaches and you figure out they all have a different approach to leading. It’s the same with leaders in our business. There are lots of ways to skin a cat. But, in two important ways, these coaches, and all great leaders, are exactly the same.

First, they’re all incredibly good recruiters. When he was hired at Alabama, Saban supposedly told his boss, “I may not be the best football coach you could have hired, but I am absolutely the best recruiter.” Swinney may be even better. He’s had the nation’s best-ranked recruiting class for the last few years.

I shared the stage with Mike Ditka at a convention a few years ago. His most memorable line? “I’ll tell you the secret of all great coaches... (long dramatic pause)... great players!!! It’s a whole lot easier to win when you have great players. And, great players attract great players."

I feel strongly that being a great recruiter is also one of the things our Hall of Fame sales leaders do very well.

Another thing that distinguishes these great leaders is that they’re never satisfied. Saban actually has the 24-hour rule. That’s how long he permits himself and his coaches to bask in the glow of a big win, even a national championship. “In 24 hours, you probably need to move on,” he said during a press conference after a national championship game. He believes that when teams and people focus on constant improvement, the outcomes—like championships—take care of themselves.

That relentless drive to be better. A belief that good enough isn’t close to good enough. A focus on possibilities, not history. Always looking at what the next level and the one beyond that look like.

And never, ever satisfied.

So, yes, Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, and Ed Orgeron all have different approaches to leading. And they prove that there are lots of ways to win. But it’s what they have in common that might be why, year-in and year-out, their football programs are always among the best in the country.

Thanks again for letting me share these thoughts every couple of weeks. May you and your family have a great Thanksgiving.


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