Leadership Lessons from the Bear

For today’s epinion, we turn to business and leadership blogger Dan Oswald, CEO of BLR, who offered these thoughts on Bear Bryant’s brand of leadership in a recent edition of The Oswald Letter.

Oswald, CEO of BLR, offered his thoughts on customer service in a recent edition of The Oswald Letter.

I grew up in Wisconsin and am a Green Bay Packers fan, so I often quote their legendary football coach Vince Lombardi in my writings. Today I live in the South, and here there’s another legendary coach who is revered, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant is best known for his success at the University of Alabama, but the story I’d like to share with you today is from earlier in his career when he was hired by Texas A&M University in 1954.

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Bryant believed that many of the players on the team he inherited were weak and had been poorly coached. He decided to take his new team away from the watchful eye of university administrators and boosters to find out what they were made of. He and the team ended up in the small West Texas town of Junction during the middle of a drought and heat wave.

Grueling Practices at 100 Degrees

For the next 10 days, Bryant put his players through grueling practices in temperatures that often exceeded 100 degrees. In today’s 24-hour media world, his practices undoubtedly would have come under significant scrutiny, but it was a different time. The exact number of boys who arrived at the camp is debated. Some put the count at more than 100. But the number who survived is well known—only 35. The workouts were so grueling, the camp so intense, that the rest quit, many fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid the next day’s practice.

There’s no doubt that you can question Bryant’s methods, but the results are impressive. Despite having a 1-9 record in Bryant’s first year and bringing the only losing season of his career, the team went on to become successful. It won the Southwest Conference championship two years later, and the following year, Bryant’s star back, John David Crow, a Junction survivor, won the Heisman Trophy.

Of the boys who survived the camp, the majority have gone on to live very successful lives. That grueling experience proved to the survivors what they were actually capable of if they committed themselves to it. One, Gene Stallings, became a successful coach in his own right, winning a national championship. Another, Jack Pardee, went on to a successful playing and coaching career in the NFL. Others went on to successful careers in business, education, and the law. They are lawyers, engineers, professors, and businessmen.

Survivors Still Meet Regularly

And the group bonded. More than 50 years after their days in Junction, Texas, the group of survivors holds a reunion every five years. They say that Coach Bryant was the most influential man in their lives. That’s quite a testament to the man. And when one apologized to the coach years later for being responsible for the only losing season of his storied career, Bryant replied, “Don’t ever come here to apologize to me. You boys weren’t losers and will never be. Time just ran out on you. Think of the games we almost won. I will never think of any of the Junction boys as a loser.”

So what’s the purpose of relaying this story to you? It’s about developing followership. These players could not have enjoyed what they were subjected to by their coach for those 10 days in the summer heat of Texas. I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of love for Coach Bryant during those days. But those who survived had a respect and admiration for the coach that lasted a lifetime.

They respected Coach Bryant for pushing them beyond their limits and helping them understand what they were capable of if they dedicated themselves to a cause. They knew he would help them succeed. Bryant may have pushed them to extreme limits and beyond what they thought they were capable of, but he got the best out of them. The players understood that. And they knew that Bryant was committed to their success. That’s where the bond came from—they were all in it together.

I hear managers claim they don’t care if they’re liked; they just want to be respected. I know other managers who are well liked but not really respected. The unusual manager, the really good one, is respected and revered. It takes a unique balance in a person to inspire that kind of loyalty and admiration, but it can be done.

Respect Begets Respect

To be respected, a manager must treat others with respect. He or she must be capable, fair, and focused. It takes time to gain the respect of others because it must be earned. Likewise, you don’t have to be a pushover to be well-liked. Bryant was loved by his players, but he was hard on them. He was loved because they knew their coach was pushing them to be their best. He showed genuine affection for his players while still driving them to excel.

And in the end, Bryant and his players formed a lifelong bond because they came together focused on a common goal. They worked together, survived together, and ultimately succeeded together. Those players would have followed Coach Bryant anywhere. Imagine what you and your team could achieve if you could win the admiration and respect of those who work for you—and get them all singularly focused on one goal. It worked for Coach Bryant.

  • Anonymous

    But was it the grueling experience in Junction that gets credit or was it winning the championship? In my experience, winning sports championships is a great facilitator of bonding and later success.

  • Anonymous

    The picture says it all: Respect: This exit. Rspect pretty much went out the window. Maybe.

    How are grueling workouts signs of respect? How are grueling workdays under life- and health-threatening conditions in an isolated, brutal place motivators?

    This isn’t respect and motivation unless some very specific expectations, faith in the players, and believable affirmation and conviction that they could get through these workouts was shown–perhaps first by speech, followed by Bear praticipating in the workouts and working every bit as hard as his players. If not, this is just brutal, bullying, and a variation of survival of the fittest.

    What really bothers me about this post is that every jackass brutal, bullying boos out there will take it as permission to be cruel and mean and to call it setting high expectations. It there any truth or real caring out there? Are there some better stories about how to accomplish change in the workplace without nearly killing the wokrers?