“How do you play well? You practice well. You prepare well.” – Coach Kirby Smart
I’m from the south, and like most southerners, Saturdays in the fall are for family, friends, good food, and football! If our team is having a great year, this carries over all the way into the bitter cold month of January. Football in the south can be defined as a religion, or at a minimum, an obsession. Last night, our Georgia Bulldogs defeated the University of Alabama to become the 2021 National Champions! As we celebrate the end of a record season, our team has spent some time reflecting on Coach Kirby Smart’s approach to transforming and leading the UGA football team and the instrumental role that his leadership has played in the team’s success.
I’ve been cheering on the Georgia Bulldogs for as long as I can remember, and when I graduated from UGA, my love for this team deepened even more. My respect for the coaching staff has intensified as well. UGA has always had some great coaches leading the Bulldogs – Vince Dooley is legendary, and Mark Richt was respected by all, but in December of 2015, a former player was named Head Coach for the Georgia Bulldogs – Kirby Smart, and dare I say, that he is one of the best college football coaches to wear red & black? He brought with him an air of excitement that had faded a little over the past decade.
In only his second season coaching UGA, Smart took the Bulldogs to the National Championship to go up against the Alabama Crimson Tide. And in his sixth season as head coach, Smart faced Saban once again, for the National Championship title, this time winning it all. Of course, Nick Saban is one of the best football coaches of all time. But was he as consistent and did he deliver as many wins as Smart within his first 6 years as a head coach? He did not.
Smart is undeniably one of the best football coaches in the nation. He demonstrates effective leadership on and off the field, and his philosophy about consistency, continuous improvement, growth and development, and learning from mistakes are all the mantras of some of the best leaders in the world.
Following are four important leadership behaviors that the most effective leaders practice, including Kirby Smart:
Continuous Growth & Development
Not only does Smart focus on his own growth and development, but he also ensures that his players are developing their leadership and their craft. The players genuinely understand that great isn’t good enough and that there is always room for improvement in the precision of a pass, the strength of a tackle, and the agility of a play. Smart balances his tactical skills with his strategic skills. Many questioned his decision to start Stetson Bennett in place of JT Daniels, especially with so much on the line. But, as most great leaders, Smart sees the bigger picture. He can see the long-term effects, and he’s not in it to merely win a game – he’s building a program that endures.
Ensuring a Strong Bench Strength
Smart has done a tremendous job recruiting, not only some of the best players, but also the best coaching staff, and he doesn’t stop there. He understands that when you develop great leaders, other opportunities to leverage their strengths open up. He maintains the necessary bench strength with his players and his staff. Smart understands that “to build a program, you have to build it on a foundation of strong recruiting, strong people in your organization, and retention of staff.” But when he loses strong people, he doesn’t skip a beat – he has other talented, strong leaders ready to take the wheel.
Smart has brought a tremendous level of consistency to this program. He established his expectations early on, and he conveys them consistently to his players and his staff. This is a critical leadership behavior, as people want to know what is expected of them, and they want the feedback, coaching, and support to deliver. Over six short years, Smart has built a consistently successful football program. Have there been setbacks and disappointments? Absolutely! However, leaders understand that the goal is not perfection; the goal is to learn from mistakes and continue to grow and improve.
Any great leader understands that building trust and conveying confidence in one’s team is a recipe for engagement and higher levels of performance. Smart has learned over the last six years the importance of empowering his coaching staff to make decisions and “let them lead.” He recently said that he’s been “delegating more and trusting his people to do their jobs…. avoiding micromanagement.” Leaders who consistently practice this behavior will make a significant difference in the effectiveness of their teams.
As we continue to celebrate last night’s big win, several things remain: Effective leadership is vital to a team’s success, Kirby Smart is one of the strongest leaders in college football, and we will look ahead with great anticipation to the 2022 season. Go Dawgs!