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Don Shula

November 22, 2009

Last week Don Shula recorded his 300th professional victory while coaching the Miami Dolphins over the Green Bay Packers. That made Shula the second winningest coach of all time in professional football. At age 61 it’s quite likely that he will go on to become the winningest all time coach, exceeding the 325 victories accumulated by the legendary George Halas and his famous Chicago Bears.

Why should this story be on the business page? It has often been said that an effective manager must be a good coach and a good teacher. Coach Shula is one of the best at all three. On the occasion of this milestone, it’s worthwhile to listen to what he has to say and what others have said about him.

In a recent interview, Coach Shula was asked the typical questions about his secrets for winning and longevity. He replied “Coaching is teaching. It’s not what I know, the X’s and O’s, it’s what I can transmit to the people I’m responsible for. That’s how you’re judged.”

Think carefully about what Coach Shula had to say. It’s not “what you know, but rather it’s how you communicate what you know” that counts. Communication is the key skill in managing, coaching, and teaching. Coach Shula’s observation explains why the race is not always won by the swiftest or the business is not always built by the brightest

In his years in the White House, President Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator”, but was often criticized for his grasp of details. Politics aside, friends and foes alike marveled at his communication skills. His ability to focus attention on an individual issue and galvanize a nation into action were the keys to an effective presidency.

When Coach Shula said, “It’s not what I know, it’s what I can transmit to people,” he was galvanizing the difference between information and knowledge. Oh sure, information is important, but without the communication skills to put it to use, information is little more than inanimate facts. Knowledge is the ability to apply information in such a manner to affect results. For a manager, it’s not just the information that he knows, it’s his ability, his knowledge, his communication skills that galvanize a commitment and motive others to action.

Communication implies more than just slick oratory. Effective communication is a two way process, it requires both transmission and reception. The effective manager, coach, teacher also needs to listen from time to time.

Listen to what former Miami Dolphin and Hall of Fame player, Larry Czonka, had to say about Coach Shula. “When he has an objective in football, he’s rock steady in his determination and as bullheaded a guy as you can ever find. But he will admit that somebody else can come up with a better idea. He listens to his players and his assistant coaches.”

Czonka is saying that Coach Shula didn’t become the second winningest coach in professional football by being an easy guy, a push over. Czonka said Shula is rock steady, determined and as bullheaded as any guy you can find. But there’s a lot of rock steady, bullheaded managers, teachers, and coaches in this world. The key point that Czonka made is that Shula listens; he listens to his players and his assistant coaches.

To win 300 games in the National Football League you have to be tough, but you also need to be smart enough to listen. It’s a pleasant combination to find a hard charging manager or coach that’s a determined, bullheaded guy but who is also wise enough to listen to conflicting opinions of others.

Communicating with words alone won’t get you to the top of the pyramid in a competitive profession like professional football. Your deeds, as well, play a significant role in transmitting your message.

Listen to what Jim Jensen, an 11 year Dolphin veteran, says about his coach. “He’s such a hardworking man. He’s so dedicated to the game. It’s incredible the work ethic that he transmits to the players and the other coaches.”

Leadership by example. You can write all the memos and set all the rules that you want, but if you want your people to develop high levels of dedication and a strong work ethic, the best way to do it is to show it.

Coach Shula knows that it requires dedication and a high work ethic to be successful in any endeavor, but knowing that alone is not enough. He has to transmit it. Transmitting it in words alone is not enough. He also transmits it through his deeds in establishing a positive role model and a leadership example for the people who work for him.

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