My favorite football team growing up was the Chicago Bears. They were tough, especially their linebacker, Mike Singletary. I have a clear memory of his eyes wide open before the snap, just waiting to tackle. He was intense. He had a nickname – Samurai.
After his hall-of-fame career, he became an assistant coach. He became interim head coach of the San Francisco 49ers after Mike Nolan was fired in October 2008. The 49ers were once a proud franchise that fell on hard times lately. There was a lot of losing, not many playoff games, and a lot of underachieving.
You knew what kind of coach, what kind of leader, Singletary was going to be his first game as head coach.
During halftime of his first game as head coach, he gave a “pep talk” by pulling down his pants, showing that the team was getting their you-know-what kicked.
Near the end of his first game, Singletary sent one of those high-profile, high-paid, underachievers, Vernon Davis, to the showers early after making an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Singletary said that Davis would better serve his team by taking a shower and coming back out to watch the team play than going back out on the field.
The post-game interview sounded like Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction (The Dan Patrick Radio Show did a great parody of this, it was hard to tell the difference). In the post-game interview, he said that he was not going to tolerate players who thought it was all about them when in reality, it should be all about the team. He also said “We can not make decisions that cost the team.” Singletary even said that he would rather play with 10 players (and be one player short), than play with 11 when that 11th player is not sold on being part of the team.
“It is more about them than it is about the team…cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them, can’t do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win.”
He said the team will change because the team wants to change and wants to be champions. He said the mindset needed to change, and he wanted to know who really wants to win. Many players had been there so long under unsuccessful times, the players become part of the problem rather than the solution. He wants players that are solution oriented.
What can leaders learn from this? First, I would not recommend pulling your pants down. But, Singletary’s “pep talk” though unconventional, got his point across. Communication is important. Second, it is very hard to change a culture of losing. The same goes for sports teams as much as it does organizations. When there is a culture of underachieving, of losing, or apathy, a leader who comes in sometimes needs to be forceful, set a tone, be strict, be results-oriented, and maybe “call people out” or “cut the fat” for the betterment of the organization in the future. Those that aren’t part of the solution are part of the problem. Third, to go from a culture of losing to a culture of winning, buy in from everyone is needed. Those who don’t believe in the vision or direction the team is going, don’t buy into the vision or direction, or are not sold on the vision or direction, are just not going to be useful as the team goes into a different direction. A leader must be visionary, and get buy-in from followers.
Singletary is now the permanent head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, after winning 4 of the last 5 games. In the locker room after the final game of the season, the announcement was made in front of all his players that this December would be the last December that the 49ers were going to have their last game in December – in other words, the Samurai linebacker who is now head football coach, was going to lead the team to a winning record and playoff games in January next year. Through communication, vision, and selling people on a direction, leaders can start to turn a culture of losing into a culture of winning and success.