I readily confess to being an avid, lifelong college football fan. As a youngster, I was a sandlot football superstar dreaming of gridiron glory. Never happened. My parents, fearing injury, forbade me to play organized football. But I sure did dream. And I followed football — especially college football — with a passion. Two of my high school classmates played for Alabama’s legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant. One later played several seasons in the National Football League.
The winningest of my heroes
None of my college football heroes, however, excels Steve Spurrier. In 1966, Steve, who played quarterback for the University of Florida Gators, won the coveted Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to the player deemed US college football’s best. Later, Spurrier quarterbacked in futility and humiliation for the woeful start-up Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise.
But Spurrier’s ultimate greatness came not as a college football player but as a coach. As the Florida Gators’ “Ole Ball Coach” in the 1990s, Spurrier led his alma mater to a litany of victories, championships, and records too long to list here. You can imagine my elation when, after a brief and uninspiring stint as coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, it was announced that Spurrier had accepted the head coaching job for my then home-town South Carolina Gamecocks! The next 10 years were the most glorious in the Gamecocks’ century-long history of mediocrity. Spurrier is the winningest coach in more than 100 years of South Carolina Gamecocks football.
By the way, Steve has a connection to biblical higher education. His parents, Presbyterian minister Graham and wife Marjorie (both now deceased) were Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) graduates.
Calling the plays
One of the hallmarks of Steve Spurrier’s coaching career was the absolute genius with which he designed “ball plays,” as he liked to call them, and the uncanny ability he possessed for calling the right play at the right time, dumbfounding the defense time after time. Beginning with his head coaching tenure at Duke University and continuing even up to his spectacularly successful 2019 stint as septuagenarian head coach for the Orlando Apollos of the upstart Alliance of American Football, Spurrier has earned renown as one of the most gifted football play callers of all time.
Given Steve Spurrier’s glittering record and personal genius as a college football play caller, it may surprise you to learn that Spurrier relinquished his play-calling duties at South Carolina as the program’s success mushroomed.
In that decision, Spurrier resembles other greats including such legendary coaches as Tom Landry, Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Bill Parcells, Don Shula, Andy Reid, Nick Saban, and many more.
What? Yes, Spurrier and other incredibly gifted football play-callers deliberately gave up play calling. Why? I can think of several reasons — and they are all applicable to leadership in any context.
And that, however circuitously and mysteriously, brings me to the last My Leadership Lane-Assist prompt.
Prompt #17: You don’t have to call the plays.
What do I mean by applying the term “calling the plays” to the kind of leadership you are exercising in higher education, ministry, non-profit or other organizational contexts? I am equating “calling the plays” to making day-to-day management decisions.
Eventually, as a leader, you need to be envisioning and working toward allowing others to “call the plays” in your organization.Click to tweet
First of all, assigning “play-calling” duties to others enlarges your field of vision and frees you to exercise more strategic leadership. When you insist upon — or feel somehow obligated — to making most day-to-day management decisions, you are in danger, as some would put it, of managing the momentum rather than managing the potential. Like hockey great Wayne Gretzky who famously quipped, “I skate to where the puck is going to be,” you need to be thinking way ahead of the present circumstances and beyond the visible situational horizon. Your role requires a higher and broader perspective than can be afforded if you are constantly immersed in day-to-day management.
A second reason you should at least be working toward relinquishing “play-calling duties” is that your true leadership legacy consists even more of the leaders you grow and release than the accomplishments you garner and retain. If you are not surrounding yourself with team members who have the capacity to assume “play calling duties” you are in serious trouble. You should not delegate authority frivolously or prematurely, but you should assume a degree of risk.
Risk, you say? Yes, risk. Delegation involves risk. Don’t fool yourself: risk cannot be eliminated; it can only be estimated.
My wise and faithful friend, Lancaster Bible College President (now Emeritus) Peter Teague, once challenged me to ask myself these two clarifying questions as my executive leadership tenure lengthened and matured:
- What do I do best?
- What can only I do?
The answer to the first question may or may not incline you to retain “play calling duties” but if your answer to the second question requires you to admit that only you are capable of day-to-day management decision making in your organization, you are either dangerously deluded or your leadership pool is deeply deficient. You need either to get real about yourself or get busy deepening your talent pool.
My Leadership Lane-Assist word to the wise:
Prompt #17: You don’t have to call the plays.
And that’s all I have to say about that. For your convenience and reflection, here is the entire list of My Leadership Lane-Assist prompts:
- Prompt #1: Think kingdom rather than organization or job.
- Prompt #2: Kingdom is not a zero-sum game.
- Prompt #3: Err on the side of generosity.
- Prompt #4: Rules are last and least for leadership success.
- Prompt #5: Resist the tendency to allow policies to become a substitute for judgment.
- Prompt #6: The sabbath was made for man … and so are policies.
- Prompt #7: Don’t add people until you ensure optimal investment in training and equipping the people you already have.
- Prompt #8: Look for solutions, not blame.
- Prompt #9: (Almost) never criticize in writing; (almost) always praise in writing.
- Prompt #10: When it comes to hiring, wait rather than settle.
- Prompt #11: Adapt your structures to fit your people, not the other way around.
- Prompt #12: Look for what energizes you, not just what your capability allows you to do.
- Prompt #13: Invite and empower trusted colleagues to ruthlessly call you out when you commit biblical and institutional values violations.
- Prompt #14: The end user defines quality, not the product designer or process supervisor.
- Prompt #15: You will increasingly conform to what you count.
- Prompt #16: Planning is not the accumulation of possibilities; it is the elimination of options.
- Prompt # 17: You don’t have to call the plays.
Grace and peace,
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
In this essay, Southern Baptist Seminary’s Andrew Walker affirms David Brooks’ commendation of the “forged family” and observes that what Brooks commends and hopes for represents the essence of the biblical vision of the church.