The Coaching Tree of Leadership

The Coaching Tree is like a Family Tree. But unlike a Family Tree which you are born into, a Coaching Tree represents the many layers and history of succession of leadership, team building success and talent development.

Bill Parcells, the Hall of Fame former head coach who last coached in the National Football League in 2006 was a two-time Super Bowl Champion and two-time Coach of the Year. Over a 19 year head coaching career, he amassed with a record of 172-130-1. Though widely regarded as one of the most influential leaders in NFL history, looking closely at the record books, he boasts few if any achievements which would place him in the top 10 in any individual statistical coaching category.

There is perhaps no harder job in North American professional sports than the role of head coach. In an industry so focused on results, there is very little margin for error or patience. There is even a saying that: “Coaches get hired to get fired.” It is a role that requires the very best in leadership qualities: intelligence, patience, discipline and a strong balance between confidence and humility. In the corporate world, much like in professional sports, finding the best leaders are critical to drive long term organizational success. Understanding who has true leadership potential allows organizations to align its internal strategies around talent management.

“The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers” – Peter Drucker

Of course, in order to truly identify or develop successful leaders, it starts with understanding what key characteristics should be used as identifiers of potential. In other words, what should management look for when trying to identify potential success or even to evaluate the impact of their leaders. There are many theories in organizational psychology one can look to for clues on how to best measure and identify leadership qualities. Many have claimed Emotion Intelligence is a strong indicator of potential leadership.

The problem is that while it is possible to measure emotional intelligence, it does not equate to measuring leadership. After all, all dogs are animals but not all animals are dogs. In fact, it is entirely possible that individuals may score very high on individual EI factors and yet be extremely poor leaders. Management teams love to tout SMART goals as a bedrock of employee evaluation. Yet, ironically, when it comes to measuring leadership itself, it is usually relegated to qualitative and subjective discussion. This brings to the forefront the main question: What is the most direct, objective, quantifiable measurement of an individual’s leadership ability?

Progenitor of Success

Before answering how to measure leadership, a central question to consider is: What is leadership? Doing a simple search on google there is no shortage of flashy and inspiring quotes. The reality however is that these are more appeals to emotion and social media than actual practical definitions. Forbes offers this practical definition: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal. In other words, Leadership is the ability to influence, create, and maintain “followers” through social means. Though at times compensation or force are tools that can be used, in the long run the ability to influence is agnostic to hierarchy, morality or authority. In a free labour market society, if the first objective is to measure leadership ability, it starts with the ability to maintain followers. In other words: Turnover.

But this is only the starting point. After all, turnover occurs for many reasons, many of which have more to do with individual circumstances. While the research is clear on the role of poor leadership on turnover, it has also shown that people resign as often despite great leadership as they do because of poor leadership. After all, ambition is a prerequisite of high performing teams. Because of that, it is the metrics and circumstances around turnover which are useful in analyzing and separating leadership from poor leadership. Turnover may be an indicator of management but like most metrics, without proper context, it can be easily misinterpreted.

The Big Tuna

The term coaching tree is referred to as the relationship of coaches and assistant coaches who move on to become head coaches. In the NFL, the discussion around coaching trees is common and most head coaches can trace their lineage back to a certain “ancestor” for whom they previously coached under. While Bill Parcells’ record alone is noteworthy, some of his former assistant coaches have gone on to have Hall of Fame careers and win Super Bowls. His coaching tree has combined for a record of 891-739-1 in the regular season, 55-35 in the playoffs, and 9 championships. His former assistants include Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, and the winningest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick.

Bill Belichick as a head coach has consistently demonstrated success, creating opportunities for his own coaching assistants. Of Parcell’s tree, Belichick alone has produced so many of his own branches that many forget that they are sub-branches of Parcells’. But in many ways, Belichick’s coaching tree reflects the diverging views on leadership. It is the difference between sustained greatness and individual superstardom. From 1999 to 2019, Belichick’s New England Patriots have won 1 of out of every 4 Super Bowls, a ridiculous feat in an incredibly competitive league.

However, one area he lacks is his ability to develop sustained coaching talent beyond his own control. Of all his former assistants who went on to have head coaching opportunities, they have a combined 41% winning percentage. They boast no individual head coaching successes worth noting.

On the other hand, the only other active NFL coach with more than 200 wins, Andy Reid, has won 1 Super Bowl and lost 2. His coaching track record is Hall of Fame worthy but reaches nowhere near that of Belichick’s individual achievements as a head coach. Despite that, his ability to procreate success speaks for itself. Of all active coaches in today’s NFL, 5 of them were proteges of Reid’s. That is nearly one of every 6 head coaches in the NFL. Of those, two of them have already won Super Bowls in their own right.

“Great leaders do not create followers; they create more leaders.” – Tom Peters, Adam Elgar.

When setting goals and evaluating people leaders, there is often only a directional proxy for measuring their leadership abilities, which is the performance of their team. There is a myopic assumption that leadership can be measured by financial success. But profit is a measure of short-term financial results. Stock price reflects market sentiment. Neither of these is a true measure of leadership.

What is the single most direct way of evaluating an individual’s leadership abilities? Turnover may not be a stand-alone performance measurement of leadership but it certainly deserves more spotlight. By acknowledging this, one can reconcile that a leader who is unable to maintain followers is no leader at all. And while it starts with observing their ability to maintain continuity, it continues with understanding the ability to create success in others, once the branch has extended beyond their reach.

Bill Belichick has achieved the most individual coaching success in NFL history. He is tied for most Super Bowls at 6 and has 11 more playoff wins than any of his historical peers. But while he has proven to be one of, if not the best of all time as an individual head coach, his direct influence on the game will likely end with his retirement in the record books. Andy Reid’s legacy on the other hand, like Bill Parcells’, has the opportunity to live on long after Bill Belichick has coached his final game.

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