Row Your Boat! 10 Leadership & Culture Building Takeaways from Coach PJ Fleck

Sports fan or not sport offers incredible lessons when it comes to leadership, team development, process, culture, and competition. 

If you don’t know Coach Fleck’s story, in short, he was hired three seasons ago to turnaround the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football program. 

Outside of a couple of brief periods of un-sustained success decades ago – the program has been competitively irrelevant.  However, just three weeks ago, Fleck’s Gophers completed their 3rd season under his guidance, winning 11 of 13 games, and a #10 national ranking (out of 125).

Before arriving at Minnesota, Coach Fleck spent four seasons as the head football coach at Western Michigan University (WMU).  When he took over there, they were winless.  When he left, WMU was a top 10 program in the country.  The WMU program has since backslid to mediocrity.

All this to say, Coach Fleck has made an enormous impact, in a short time, in places not known to be places where success comes easy.  He has a great track record.

In November, I was in the front row for a presentation Fleck gave to over 200 local business owners and leaders.

Coach Fleck shared points of view, insights, and experiences he's learned along the way and is instilling in the program, which is helping lead its turnaround and position near the top of college football's ELITE.

Many more lessons were shared, but below are ten great takeaways from which any team or organizational leader can benefit.

  1. The Three Jobs of Every Leader:
    • To Listen – The best leaders are the best listeners and see the value in what others have to say.
    • To Look – look around every corner.  Use the telescope to see what is out ahead, and a microscope to what’s right in front of you.
    • To Lift – continually raise others and help them know they can achieve something great.
  2. Get people to fail each day.  Push people out of their comfort zones to grow. From failures come learning, growth, and the realization you can achieve and do more.
  3. FAMILY – Teams and organizations regularly proclaim to be a family.  But, really, what does that mean?  To Coach Fleck, it means Forget About Me I Love You.  Family is about sacrificing for others.  Until you embrace that it is not all about you, you won't grow true family.  Everyone has to buy into this notion.
  4. The most challenging path is the path to be legendary.  To become legendary – or to create a legacy – it requires running towards the problematic stuff, not away from it.  Make that the best job.  Go where you know you can make the most significant difference. 
  5. You know your culture is working when:
    • Your best people are your hardest workers.
    • Your voice becomes their voice.
    • Everyone is using and speaking the same language.
    • The leader focuses on taking people where they want to go — taking them higher than the leader.
  6. What kind of team do you have?
    • Bad Teams = No One Leads
    • Average Teams = Managers/Coaches Lead
    • ELITE Teams = Employees/Players Lead
  7. Selecting People for Your Team.  People today know how to interview.  They know what's coming before you have asked it.   It is critical to find unique ways to vet and bring the right players into your culture to help identify and surface the characteristics you seek. 

    In Coach Fleck's case, one method he uses is a mural of legendary figures on his wall.Each figure struggled, failed, was rejected, had belief, and persevered along their journey. Coach wants to know if his student-athletes know who the characters on the wall are - and - if they know the figure's story.
  8. Possessing an ELITE vs. Average Mindset
    Average people have been told and believe phrases like, "I can't," "you will never be able to," and "I've never."The ELITE mindset invests and believes in themselves.They hold true to themselves in the face of doubt from the outside world.

    Reality is, average people will never understand the ELITE mindset. The ELITE will never understand the average – and do not need to apologize for that.  But, we all fit into one of those two categories.
  9. Definition of Success.  Success is the peace of mind you get from knowing you did everything you could to be the best you can be – as long as you change and improve on your best every day

    Success isn't a straight line up shaped like a hockey stick.It's a line of peaks and valleys.The secret is to change and improve when at the summit, not at the bottom of the valley.
  10. As CEO, 95% of what you do should have nothing to do with the game you play.  You own the building and development of the culture, its leaders, and the team.  Not the playing.