Lessons in Leadership: Happy Trails, Nick Saban

Lessons in Leadership: Happy Trails, Nick Saban

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Last week, the G.O.A.T. of college football coaches, Nick Saban, retired as the head football coach at Alabama. Whether or not you’re a fan of Saban (or the Crimson Tide), it’s clear that he is truly the greatest of all time. Saban had an 88% winning percentage at Alabama in the toughest conference in college football. He also won 7 national championships, more than any other college coach in history.

In paying tribute to Saban, it’s important to understand that great leadership takes many forms. Lessons learned from sports apply to the world of safety. It takes proper planning and execution to be a consistent winner. Doing things right on the front end influences the scoreboard on the back end…whether it’s the score of a football game or incident rate reduction. Great leadership is great leadership, regardless of the context.

A Personal Note

A friend of mine is a coach for a local football team. He was invited to Tuscaloosa to observe an Alabama practice during the week. His big takeaway (besides the size of the players) was how they ran certain plays. He said something to this effect, “In our practice, we move to a new play as soon as we get the first one right. At Alabama, they run the same play 17 times correctly before they move on to the next one.” This reflects an organizational norm of excellence. And very high performance expectations. Not surprisingly, people often use the term “culture” when describing the Alabama program under Saban. 

Play to Your Own High Standards

After a 62-10 victory over New Mexico State several years ago, Saban had a testy press conference in which he expressed frustration about how his team played. Broadcasters often suggest that he does this to motivate his players or because he’s simply short-tempered with the press. However, during this 11-minute session, Saban provided a very interesting (and instructive) train of thought:

This very simple lesson is critical. Create very high expectations and play up to those standards.

Complacency breeds subpar performance. This is obvious when injury numbers are high, but it’s especially important when injury numbers are low. Leaders often have a false sense of security when there haven’t been recent incidents.

Two key takeaways should be:

Summary: Lessons in Leadership

Organizational leaders need to be ever-vigilant when it comes to proactive safety efforts to prevent SIFs. And like Saban and other coaches, it’s important to honestly reflect on recent performance. Celebrate your wins but also tighten up gaps that may lead to incidents and problems down the road. Also, don’t get complacent if you’ve had a recent incident-free run. In safety, as in football, it’s more than just the scoreboard. It’s about establishing high expectations and playing to your high standards every day.  


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