Last Saturday night, a college football game caught my attention. Two of the lowest ranking teams in the Southeastern Conference, Auburn and Texas A&M, were playing what should have been a lackluster game. Yet, the energy from the Auburn team and from Jordan O’Hare stadium was as intense as an SEC Championship. There was clearly something different about the climate of Auburn’s team.
After terminating their head coach two weeks prior, the Auburn Tigers were under new leadership- former legendary Auburn running back, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams. I watched as Williams’ ran up and down the sideline following every play and exuding positive energy that seemed to infect every player and fan. And, when Auburn beat Texas A&M 13-10, his celebratory pride was felt even through the television screen. However, it wasn’t the nostalgic story of a former legendary player acting as the interim head coach or even the energetic victory that caught my attention- it was what Williams said when interviewed after the game.
When asked how it feels to have won his first game as the Auburn head football coach, Williams’ response was profound.
“I love serving these young men,” he said. “This coaching staff, it’s bigger than me. It’s just not my show. We are together. We’re family.”
When asked how he injected such life into the team, he said:
“Serve. Discipline. Believe. These kids. These staff. These kids just need a little love. They need to be loved on with the discipline. They need to know it’s okay to make mistakes. They’re going to fall but us coaches are going to be there to pick them back up. And, regardless, we got their back. They’ve got to open their heart. That’s all they need.”
In less than two minutes, Cadillac Williams summed up decades of research on effective leadership, and leaders of all disciplines are encouraged to reflect on his message.
1. “It’s bigger than me. It’s just not my show.”
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, referred to the ideal leader as a “Level 5 Leader.” A distinguishing characteristic of a Level 5 Leader is humility. When something bad happens to the organization, the Level 5 Leader takes responsibility. When something good happens, the Level 5 Leader gives credit to the team. Recognizing the hype his presence had created, Coach Williams’ immediate response was to redirect any praise to those who deserve it most- the staff and team.
2. “They need to be loved…with the discipline.”
Countless researchers have pointed to the importance of empathy in the leader-subordinate relationship. Those who feel like their leader is invested in them and genuinely cares about them tend to perform better. However, empathy alone is not enough. Effective leaders balance empathy with accountability. They push their subordinates beyond their comfort zone yet do so from a place of care and compassion. When people feel like their leader is invested in their development, they thrive.
3. “They need to know it’s okay to make mistakes. They’re going to fall but us coaches are going to be there to pick them back up.”
Psychological safety is the cornerstone of any truly productive organization. Next level success is reserved for the risk takers, not the comfort seekers. When organizational leaders create environments in which their subordinates feel safe to take risks because they know their leaders will support them, they are pouring gasoline on the fire that is the collective motivation of the organization.
While Cadillac Williams’ time as head coach for the Auburn Tigers may only be temporary, he showed last Saturday night just how powerful effective leadership can be. His display of humility, empathy, and drive resulted in a self-motivated and hungry Auburn football team and an electric dynamism in Jordan O’Hare stadium that hasn’t been seen all season. The late Auburn sports commentator, Rod Bramblett, said it best: "Go crazy, Cadillac!"