What I learned from LaVell Edwards

By Timothy R. Clark

Deseret News

Published: Monday, Jan. 10 2011 9:00 a.m. MST

LaVell Edwards needs no introduction. He has taken his place in the pantheon of pigskin generals. As a hall-of-famer, he is accorded legend status, a distinction reserved for a small, elite fraternity of coaches who break from the ranks and set themselves apart.

It's one thing to win a championship. It's an entirely different matter to win over and over, year in and year out, to make winning the norm, to cast a culture whose very DNA is engineered to win, to create muscle memory in an institution so that its natural motion propels it to victory.

Most coaches have winning moments. Coach Edwards created a winning era. Let me put this in perspective.

In 29 years as head football coach at BYU, Coach Edwards posted only one losing season. Legends build legacies, and then there's everybody else. You get the point.

As a cultural artifact, football is a piece of Americana. It's a game of strategy and toughness. It's a game of performance and accountability. The yardstick by which we measure success in this rarefied world is simple — the win column. If you notch wins, you stay. If you don't, you move on.

We lionize the winners and forget about the losers, but that's just my preamble. What about the rest of the story?

Coach Edwards did more than just win football games. Let me tell you about the LaVell Edwards I played for, the LaVell Edwards I watched, observed and studied. As a player, I took mental notes for four years because I knew that I had been given the opportunity to be a part of something special.

Indeed, I was learning at the feet of one of the greats, and the lessons being taught extended far beyond the gridiron. Coach Edwards was in the leadership development business. On the ground and in the trenches, he never ceased to teach, and only when necessary did he use words.

Here are just three of the many leadership lessons he taught:

Manage your emotions for performance

Coach Edwards was a model of poise under pressure. Regardless of the situation, his outward expression of leadership was calm and confident. Long experience had tutored him to understand that the emotions of fear, anxiety, anger and frustration are almost always counterproductive in helping an organization achieve its goals. In most cases, the mismanagement of emotions is damaging and only increases the risk of failure, especially when people are fatigued and falling behind.

As an organization runs at maximum exertion and draws down its energy reserves, it becomes more vulnerable to discouragement and self-doubt. While everyone is human, the leader must maintain focus in the midst of adversity. Rest assured, there will be adversity and there will be failures. We lost some heartbreakers, but those were the times when Coach Edwards became the repository of our fears and the hope of our renewed efforts.

His focus was on the goal and the development of the players, not on himself. Contrast that with leaders who indulge in negative emotions that lower the productive capacity of their organizations.

Yes, people respond to threats and melodrama in the short term. But over 29 years? Don't think so. Ultimately, high performance is based on a willing offering of discretionary effort. Only a leader's managed, controlled and checked emotional performance will motivate people to do their best work — hence, his unflappable demeanor. He didn't make use of the customary power tools that we see so much of in the prevailing culture of football. No screaming. No profanity. No head games. No manipulation — just rock-jawed poise.

Seek unedited self-awareness

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