3 Things the Church Could Learn From Nick Saban!!

3 Things the Church Could Learn From Nick Saban!!

Let’s establish something from the outset. I am Not an Alabama football fan. I live in Alabama, but the only team I support outside of Oakwood University is Alabama A&M University. And yes, we do play football at Oakwood….Well, it’s intramural football, but who asked. In fact, I am still avoiding sharp objects because Monday night Alabama won their fifth national championship in 9 years. I’m in pain.

I’m not a fan of Alabama football, but I am a fan of leadership excellence. For that reason I do have deep, (begrudging) respect for the Alabama program. And it occurred to me that the church could learn a lot from coach Nick Saban.  I could list several things, but let’s look at 3 things the church could learn from the coach.

First: Everything Rises and Falls On Leadership

For some, there is a simple solution for Alabama’s football success. They win because they have always won! But not so fast. Alabama has a storied history of football excellence, but they were looking painfully pedestrian in the years following the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.

  • From 1997 to 2006 Alabama had more losing seasons than 10 win seasons.
  • Alabama didn’t have a single first round draft pick from 2001 to 2008.
  • The program was embarrassed by a recruiting scandal and severely sanctioned by the NCAA.
  • The season before Saban arrived the Tides record was 4 wins and 7 losses.

But my what a difference the right “leader” makes.

  • 9 straight years of being ranked Number 1 at some point in the season.
  • 18 first round draft picks and 29 All- Americans.
  • 5 National Championships in 10 years.

That is nothing short of amazing. I happen to consider collaborative, servant leadership to be the most effective leadership style for the local church. But that does not take away from the fact that without gifted leadership at the top, most churches, businesses, and organizations won’t reach their potential.

I regularly observe churches that were left for dead, now resurrected and restored because a different pastor was assigned there. It points up the need to carefully match church with pastor, but it also underscores the fact that no matter how gifted the congregation, good executive leadership is not a luxury but a necessity.

Second: Good Leaders Attract Good People

Nick Saban is a great coach but he has the reputation of being an even better recruiter.  As good as he is on the field, his reputation is even better in the living room of a potential recruit.  Steve Spurrier, himself a hall of fame college coach of Florida and South Carolina fame, said at the SEC Conference Media days in 2014 that Saban is the greatest recruiter in the history of college football. He’s probably right.

Over the last 10 years, Alabama has regularly had the number 1 or 2 top recruiting class. That’s talent. Young men want to play for him. They want to win. Good church leaders also seem to have a knack for attracting good people. At times those people unfortunately simply transfer in from other churches, but nevertheless, good church leaders are like magnets.

The reason is probably because good church leaders bring out the best in others. They recognize talent and more important, they train that talent. They realize that their success is directly related to the success of others. One criticism of Saban was that many of his best athletes failed to make the same splash in the NFL. But an NFL coach was quick to respond that those athletes had already received the best coaching that they would ever receive in their lifetimes- from Nick Saban. The coaching was all down-hill from there.

Third: Good Leaders Can Make the Hard Call

Real leaders distinguish themselves in a crisis. The most remarkable thing about the National Championship Game was our introduction to Tua Tagovailoa. This freshman phenom from Hawaii was the number one dual- threat quarterback coming out of high school in 2017. But that’s the point. He was in high school in 2017! This season he was patiently practicing behind starter Jalen Hurts, a phenomenal talent in his own right, who had a 27 and 2 record as Alabama starter.

But with the Tide down 13-0 at halftime, Saban pulled Hurts for the freshman quarterback. Initially the decision seemed ill-advised and a bit desperate, but it payed off big time.  I can just imagine the headlines if Alabama had gone on to lose that game. Saban would have been severely criticized and second guessed. But that’s the price that good leaders are willing to pay. They are prepared to make the tough calls and live with the results.

Gifted church leaders excel under pressure, under fire. Church members and boards are great at making suggestions, but often struggle at making decisions. Especially when decisions are hard. When decisions might upset people or challenge traditions. For that reason, many churches are literally dying for change. Good leaders provide principled but fearless leadership under pressure. They are sensitive to the persons involved, but they don’t shy away from the hard calls.

So, there it is. I said something positive about Alabama football. This might be the start of something……nah.

The Second Thing Every Leader Should Do

The Second Thing Every Leader Should Do!

I was preaching in Philadelphia not long ago for young pastor Marquis Johns. I had a fantastic time at the North Philly Church. The worship was rich, the fellowship was great, and the church was alive. I sat in the study before and after I preached, observing the endless parade of members into and out of the office. I listened to the buzz of activity that’s always present in a growing church.  It reminded me how rewarding leading a local church can be.

But it also reminded me of the challenges. Marquis has a clear vision for where he wants the church to go and every gift to get them there. I reminded the church in my remarks that he’s a race horse.  He reminds me of myself early in my ministry. Surrounded by people.  Always pushing. Never satisfied. Self-motivated. Not always listening. He’s always going to be at, or near the top of the productivity scale. But at times the personal and professional price is going to be high. I can see it because I’ve seen it.

But we desperately need Marquis and others like him in these complex times. Why? Because he’s a leader. He’s creating while others are criticizing. He’s a gifted, impatient, stubborn, productive leader.  He’s going to drive some members crazy, but he’s going to get some amazing things done. He’s going to make some big mistakes but he’s going to make an even bigger mark.

Why did I start this blog with Marquis? Because when I was with him, I was convinced that I needed to complete a blog I released months ago. The blog was, “The First Thing That Every Leader Should Do!” And what is that first thing? The first thing that every leader should do is listen. At some point in our time together, I counseled the young preacher to slow down a bit and listen. I was actually recalling some principles I laid out in the earlier blog. The first thing that every leader should do is listen, because:

  • You Don’t Know Everything – No matter how gifted you are, there are gaps in your ability to lead that others can fill. You have to listen and learn before you leap.
  • You Don’t Know Everyone –  It’s about relationships. Kenneth Blanchard says, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”  You may have arrived at the local church with gifts and a title, but real leadership authority is forged through relationship building.
  • You Don’t Know The Culture – All churches are different. Boundless energy and amazing gifts can bring immediate success, but that success is temporary if it’s cut and pasted onto a reluctant culture. Lasting change comes through cultural change. Cultural change calls for listening and learning before you launch out.

But as I was counseling the young “race horse” it was clear to me that my counsel to him was incomplete- and so was my earlier blog. It was good counsel but it was partial counsel. Because as important as listening is, it’s only the first thing that every leader should do. After you have demonstrated the wisdom to listen, you need to muster the courage to lead. The second thing that every leader must do is lead!

And that’s what Marquis and other talented leaders are doing. They are leading. It might not be perfect leadership but it’s productive leadership. And frankly, there is no such thing as perfect leadership. There will be those on the sidelines who complain, and at times those complaints will be necessary and absolutely accurate. But a good leader can listen and move at the same time.  Most of our pressing problems, especially in the church, are actually leadership problems.

  • We Need Spiritual Leadership – This is the leaders highest call. You can be effective in the board room, or the back room, but if you’re a stranger to the prayer room, you’re not an effective leader. Church leadership is essentially spiritual leadership.

I have seen a number of surveys that identified the quality people desired most in a leader. The number one quality is almost always integrity. The skills that people value most are soft skills- a combination of social skills and character traits. If a pastor is not pursuing a closer walk with God, eventually it will undermine everything else he does.

  • We Need Structural Leadership – Spiritual leadership alone is not enough.  At some point leaders must come out of their prayer closets and deal with the nuts and bolts of leading difficult change in institutions and people.  Andy Stanley reminds us that some problems at church are spiritual but many are structural. And you can’t solve a structural problem by praying about it. In fact, at times prayer can become a convenient excuse or delay.

I was assigned to a church years ago that complained about prayer meeting attendance. The problem, they felt, was that people were not as committed, not as spiritual as they once were. But when I explored the problem I realized that they had scheduled prayer meeting at a time when most of the members were still driving home from work. We changed the time and the attendance spiked. It wasn’t a spiritual problem it was a structural problem. Real leaders know the difference.

  • We Need Strong Leadership- Leadership is not for the faint at heart. You must be strong.  The criticism is constant. The rewards are few. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone knows a better way. Everyone has seen it done better somewhere else. But few are prepared to participate or sacrifice.

Now let me be clear. We need leaders who are strong, not leaders who are bullies. We need leaders not bosses. Unfortunately, that’s a concept that many leaders don’t get. I Peter 5:3 warns against “lording” leadership. Leadership that’s controlling, independent, and deaf.  The tragic fate of a lording leader is that at some point he will need someone to save him from himself, and he will have driven most independent voices away.

So, hats off to the leaders who are not only listening well, but leading well. John Maxwell said that good leaders, “know the way, show the way, and go the way.”  I like that.