Monday, September 21, 2009

Gridiron Greatness Is Due To Effective Leadership/Followership

After watching a round of college football on Saturday (being devastated that my alma mater suffered an upset loss) and browsing through the upcoming readings, I thought what better model of leadership through followership is there than football? Football brings individuals together to achieve a common goal by fostering perseverance, a strong work ethic and instilling mental toughness. The sport cultivates a culture of leadership by forming a troupe of effective followers. A coach must prepare and give his team all the tools necessary in order to achieve success. Outlining a vision and getting a team to embrace this work strategy is a crucial component of a coach’s success. An effective coach must also embody aspects of servant leadership through building a strong network of players and giving them priority in his work. However, this type of followership in football is not purely blind obedience but rather players must take what they learn and adapt it to each of their different situations when game time rolls around. Flexibility in following a plan and adaptability in the face of adversity are critical attributes for a successful football team. This too can be said of any leadership-followership institution.  Many college football teams across the country utilize a “no-huddle” offense which attempts to manipulate the defense by throwing them off balance. While the quarterback and other receivers are interpreting signals from their coaches on the sideline, ultimately the quarterback must make the decision on what play must be called after he quickly analyzes the defensive formation. In this situation, leadership responsibility is delegated to a follower. In the article by Joseph Rost, the author writes that followers can become leaders and leaders can become followers (Rost 191). At any point in the game any player can take on the responsibility of being a leader such as a linebacker calling out defensive adjustments. Rost continues that “followers do not do followership but rather leaders and followers do leadership” (Rost 192). Coaches and players are dependent upon each other and must form a cohesive relationship in order to win.

            Football viewed through the lens of a distributed perspective on leadership can portray hierarchical levels involving the head coach, position coaches, and players. John Spillane specifies that distributed leadership is about the practice rather than the leaders, leadership roles or leadership functions (Spillane 2). This perspective is defined by the interactions that individuals have with each other rather than just analyzing the actions of the leader. In football, the head coach delegates leadership to his various position coaches. These position coaches work with their respective players preparing them to become the leaders on the field. As summarized by Spillane, this “collective distribution” allows the head coach to effectively prepare his team by delegating authority to others who work separately but interdependently (Spillane 6).

            When a football program has a losing season, does this necessarily mean the team is composed of ineffective followers? If a team continually loses, this must surely mean to some extent that the athletes and even assistant coaches have not fully embraced the head coaches vision and have failed to act on it. This raises the question is a leader or a follower responsible for failure of an organization? Does an effective leader always produce success and does an ineffective leader always fail? Does this explain the difference between the leadership of Urban Meyer and Charlie Weiss?

(Go U NU!)


  1. I think this post is interesting because college sports programs deal with changes in leadership and followership every season, if not mid-season. This made me think of an article I had read on recently talking about the new catch word “fit” in terms of whether a coach works well with a team, a school’s culture or the program in place. The article went on to talk about whether “fit” is just another word for success and I think in many ways they are synonymous, not just in football, but also in other organizations. Unless you are starting an organization, there is already going to be a culture and there are traditions that are not going to be able to be changed overnight. A great leader, in my opinion has the flexibility to adapt to these things already in place and to shape a successful organization.

  2. Also I think this raises an interesting question- who is the leader of a football team? Is it the coach? The quarterback? Is there a hierarchy (i.e a ranking/ superiority among players and staff)?

    I think back too to the charisma article by Khurana- how many times have we seen a coach fired for a losing season? And then another coach brought in (Spurrier with the Redskins is a good example) all based off of another medium/ standard (in Spurrier's case, his success at the collegiate level).

    Occasionally you'll see a player get traded, but it's not often you see a linebacker's name in the paper for a team not having a winning record. Then again, I don't know how much NFL apparel is sold with coaches' names on them ;)

  3. After reading your comment, I was interested in the article you read and found it on ESPN ( The article quotes, Michigan head coach, Rich Rodriguez saying "Every school is unique. But the foundation for building a championship program is no different here than West Virginia or Glenville State." I agree that a great leader is one who can adapt to the organization and achieve success no matter the situation. But I also think a leader must have effective followers in order to achieve success. I recently read a book titled, "Resurrection" which chronicles the 1964 season of Notre Dame football and their coach Ara Parseghian. In 1963, Notre Dame football had a 2-7 record, fired their head coach and hired Parseghian, who was head coach of another school that only had a 5-4 record. Parseghian was an outsider to Notre Dame and their football traditions (he was not Catholic and never played for the team, previous coaches had played for the team). Yet, he adopted their traditions and radically changed the lineup by starting players that had been cut from the team by the previous head coach. Notre Dame went 9-1 in 1964 and finished 3rd in the country while just a year before they went unranked. In this situation, I think success must be credited to an effective leader who helps his followers reach their maximum potential and effective followers who embrace and actively pursue their leader's vision.

  4. After reading this article, like Christopher, I too began to think about how leadership is organized on a football team and how the interactions between all of these “leaders” and “followers” contribute to a team’s overall performance in terms of success and/or failure.

    As an avid Vanderbilt football fan, I started thinking about our beloved Commodores and realized just how structured the team’s leadership actually is. In fact, I see the structure as a sort of modified hierarchy of leadership in which appointed coaches, players, and other staff members interact to impact overall performance. While head coach Bobby Johnson oversees the entire staff and group of players, his assistant coaches lead the different team “divisions” (i.e. Special Teams, DL, OL, Strength/Conditioning, etc.). As far as leadership within the hierarchy of players goes, there are three team captains and a leadership council comprised of a group of elected players. The captains serve as the liaison between the coaches and leadership council, and the leadership council serves as the liaison between the captains and players. Furthermore, the players fall into this hierarchy of interrelated leadership because must serve as leaders or followers at any given moment during a game. It appears as though the Vanderbilt Commodores exercise a sort of distributed leadership, in which all members perform a variety of leadership roles ranging from coach, to assistant coach, to captain, to leadership council member, to specific player roles.

    While these appointed titles place them in official leadership roles, I wonder just how much impact these particular roles have on the team’s ultimate performance. Like Ashley inquired, is a team’s failure a direct result of a single leader or follower’s inability to deliver results in alignment with the team’s vision? Rost explains that the roles of leader and follower can switch at any time in any leadership relationship. I believe all Vandy football players and affiliated coaches/staff frequently shift between enacting the role of leader and that of follower. Therefore, the ending result of the team’s performance, whether it be success or failure, is a direct reflection of how well each coach or player stepped up to his respective role as leader or follower at any given moment.

  5. I saw a similar article on ESPN about the Colorado Rockies' new manager and team leadership. The article was about how the Rockies replaced their manager in the middle of a losing season and did not expect the manager to turn the team around. The Rockies now have a winning record and most likely will win the wild-card, due to the new manager, Jim Tracy. The players and management on the the team credit his leadership as being a reason for their mid-season turn around. One of the players, Todd Helton stated that "It's baseball. It's more about managing people and the game. He's done a great job."

    This statement I found to be really interesting, especially when you compare the role of coaches in sports. While there is a hierachy in baseball, is the manager of the team, more a manager instead of a leader?

  6. I think it is very interesting to think through what an ineffective and effective leader means, as Ashley said. We have read theorists that say leadership is measured through results, and from this perspective one could argue that if a team has a losing season, the leader has failed. The vision the coach had for the football program was not achieved.

    I have a hard time sitting with that. I do not believe that if a football program has a losing season then the coach has then been ineffective and ultimately failed. It would then go to the following question: How do you measure success? Is the only success winning the game? I don't think so. Therefore, I believe a coach can be effective, influential, and ultimately successful even if the initial desired outcomes (in this case winning) did not come through.

    Translating this into an organizational setting would help us think through what it means to be an effective or successful leader. Is there a general standard or can it be different for everyone? These are just some of the questions the class is helping us think through.


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