Nick Saban has been around the coaching block in the game of Football. From his days as a player on a dirt field outside of his father’s coal mine in West Virginia, to the championship podium at the 50-yard line following another NCAA BCS National Championship win as the coach at Alabama, Saban has been challenged as a leader for his entire professional career.
Those who see Nick Saban in press conferences, on the field, or in passing see a man who many think to be a stone cold dictator; a man who expects only the best out of the people who play for him, work for him, and those he works for. Many consider him to be one of the most demanding coaches in the game. While those characteristics may be true, from a leadership perspective, he may be one of the most adaptive leader in sports.
For the last decade, Saban and his sports psychology guru Dr. Lionel Rosen have been promoting the fine art of process learning and improvement, with each and every day serving as an opportunity to learn and improve. Prior to meeting Dr. Rosen, Saban expected his players and staff to work as hard as he did, and learn at the same rate he did, which was impossible considering the places each person found themselves in the game of football. He believed that through hard work alone, everybody could be great, and that by practicing harder than everyone else, you would improve faster. Before what he calls “The Process”, which is now a metric he uses with every member of his team, Saban had above average coaching success rebuilding the Michigan State Football Team, and serving as a Defensive Coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and Ohio State Buckeyes, but he never won the big games; Bowl Games, Rivalry Games, National Championships, or Super Bowls.
Saban had to reinvent his approach to leadership to adapt to the people he was taking with him on the ride that is a football season. After spending an extended amount of time with Dr. Rosen, the two men found a way to schedule a football season based on process-driven learning. In an article by BalancedAchievement.com called, “Nick Saban’s Process: A Methodical Grind Toward Greatness”, Saban describes process-based learning as “what you have to do day in and day out to be successful.” (Zeis, 2018)
Through the adoption of “The Process”, Saban proved to the people who thought of him as a hopelessly structured dictator, fondly referred to as “The Nicktator” in a New York Time article (Bautista, 2008). Through my studies in leadership, I found Saban to be a classic example of a prominent leader who follows a Path-Goal Theory of Leadership (Northouse, 2018). The path-goal theory “assumes effective leaders will provide valued rewards for the follower and then help them find the best way to get there.” (Northouse, 2018). Saban proves time and time again that he does whatever it takes to get his players on a path to be successful. In the book, “Saban: The Making of a Coach”, by Monte Burke, he gives an example of a time while Saban was at Alabama, and his players had stopped eating before workouts. When their energy was low, and they werent’ working hard, the Saban of the past would have taken it as a lack of preparation by the players to be nutritiously prepared for practice. Today’s Saban asked why they were in this state, and learned the food was not appropriate for the athletes, and they weren’t eating because it would impact their performance in a negative way. Saban contacted the Alabama nutritionist responsible for football, and the next day, you better believe his players had the proper food they needed.
Along the road to leadership through the path-goal theory, Saban has had to change his leadership style. Initially, many could consider Saban to be a directive leader (Northouse, 2018), who set all of the parameters of the program, expecting everyone to conform to those parameters. He made each task laid in front of them clear, and made sure each member of the team was certain about how to reach their goal.
Since his commitment to process-driven learning, Saban has evolved into more of an achievement-oriented leader (Northouse, 2018). This type of leader “challenge(s) subordinates to work at the highest level possible.” (Northouse, 2018). Everything about Saban is now about getting his players to follow a process that he’s laid out for the players, and they are responsible for their achievement. Saban once said, “…the things that I talked about before, being responsible for your own self-determination, having a positive attitude, having great work ethic, having discipline to be able to execute on a consistent basis, whatever it is you’re trying to do, those are the things that we try to focus on, and we don’t try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be.” (Zeis, 2018)
When asked what current leader has applied the path-goal theory to leadership within their organization, Nick Saban, the one-time “Nicktator” of college football, may be our best example in collegiate and professional sports of someone who will work his hardest to adapt to the needs of his team.
Battista, J. (2006, October 8). Tough Love and Hard Questions in Miami. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/sports/football/08dolphins.html.
Burke, M. (2016). Saban: the making of a coach. Place of publication not identified: Simon & Schuster.
Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: theory and practice. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
Zeis, P., & Zeis, P. (2018, January 19). Nick Saban’s Process: A Methodical Grind Towards Greatness. Retrieved from https://balancedachievement.com/psychology/nick-sabans-process/.