Timothy R. Clark: What I learned from LaVell Edwards

Published: Monday, Jan. 10 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

Some people believe in the distinction between a private reality and a public image. Coach Edwards would laugh at such a notion. He was eminently aware of his amplified public role, but he didn't spend time cultivating a separate persona for public consumption. He simply achieved a high level of self-awareness and then was true to himself in every situation.

Becoming a leader is a process in which the scales of limited self-awareness gradually fall from our eyes, but it doesn't happen by accident. It's a consequence of developing a listening ear to feedback. It's a willingness to have a truthful encounter with the unvarnished truth of oneself. Coach Edwards saw himself in the response of others to him. He was exceptionally attuned to his modeling influence and his ability to scale impact. There was humility in his interactions. As a coach he was self-possessed but not arrogant.

You've heard it said that infatuation clouds judgment. I would argue that infatuation with oneself clouds judgment even more. Some coaches, for instance, become single-member mutual admiration societies. That's when it gets dangerous.

Coach Edwards maintained his self-awareness through modesty and self-restraint. He was keenly aware that everyone was watching his every move. Because there was no distinction between the private citizen and the public figure, he wasn't confused, and neither were his players.

Care about players more than the game

I learned from Coach Edwards that notions of professional distance and stuffy paternalism are silly concepts that engage and inspire no one. In disposition, Coach Edwards was disarming, pleasant, friendly and self-effacing. He was genuinely interested in his players, not just the X's and O's.

After practice, we'd be at the training table (cafeteria) eating dinner as a team and Coach Edwards would be doing his trademark ritual, making the rounds with a bowl of tapioca pudding in his hands.

On Sunday mornings when we were banged up and sitting in ice baths, he would do his rounds again to inspect the wounded and give a word of encouragement. Why? Because we needed it.

You see, football is a reflection of life. It's just a more transparent plane. If you play Division I football, your chance of injury is 100 percent. The only question is severity. But that's not unlike any other field of endeavor. We all take some pretty rough shots, and it doesn't hurt to have a leader around who cares when you get the soup knocked out of you.

Some leaders obsess on a need to be large and in charge. What a tragedy to live on the dark side of charisma. What a shame to repel people with a false sense of openness. Coach Edwards made it abundantly clear that it's impossible to build an organization and summon its institutional will if you don't really like people. You may get lucky and win a championship, but you'll end up leaving a landfill, not a legacy.

During his career, Coach Edwards earned a room full of trophies and a bag full of garish championship rings — the customary emblems of the win column. More than that, he earned the admiration, respect and loyalty of a generation of broken down football players who stand when a man called LaVell enters the room.

John Quincy Adams observed, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."

To my old coach, that stone-faced visage, that genuine article, that iconic builder of men who mentored so many, I salute you.

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are "The Leadership Test" and "Epic Change." E-mail: trclark@trclarkpartners

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