Leadership: Episode 1

Despite the multitude of writing about the topic of leadership, I believe it is still largely disregarded as the difference between success and failure. Success if often rationalized as ‘the right market’, ‘the best product’, or ‘solving a key problem’, while failure is often rationalized as the inverse. Based on some recent observations, I’ve decided that leadership alone can be the key determinant of the success/failure of a team.

3 recent examples have brought this home to me. These examples stick out in my mind, because in each case, the team in place, the ‘market’, and the overall ‘goal’ did not change. They were constant. The only thing that changed was the Leader. And when the new Leader came onboard, despite all of the other constants, success came rapidly.

Episode 1: James Franklin

Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, has a reputation for a few things: great academics, great medical school, and a weak football team. Vanderbilt football has historically been at the bottom of the SEC, driving limited fan attendance and attention. A few facts on the full history:

-The Commodores have been in 5 bowl games since 1894.
-The last time Vandy won 5 SEC games in a season was 1935.
-Vanderbilt has finished the season ‘ranked’ 1 time…in 1948
-Vanderbilt has only 4 winning seasons. Ever.

And the more recent history:

-The Commodores won 1 SEC game in 2009 and 2010. Combined.
-The Commodores won 4 games total in 2009 and 2010. Combined.
-All 7 SEC losses in 2010 were by >14 points and 4 were by >24 points.

In short, this is a team that has never succeeded consistently and hardly succeeded at all. All of that would change on December 17, 2010.

James Franklin came to Vanderbilt with an incredible confidence and swagger. His energy was infectious from the first day. He was a polished speaker, engaging everyone that would listen to his plan and approach. However, Franklin had one major problem. He was inheriting nearly the same team that had won 4 games over the last 2 years. Specifically, 12 of 22 starters were returning from the team that had 4 wins over the last 2 years. Over 80% of the team was identical to the previous year…and most of the 20% that were new were freshman with zero experience. In short, the leadership adage of ‘hire A players” was not available to him. For 2011 at least, his hand was dealt…and they were not winning cards. This is where the leadership story begins.

From day one, Franklin was focused on setting expectations for the program: for the players, parents, faculty, administration, and fans. The foundation of the expectation setting was to instill a culture of winning. While many leaders try to do this, the difference here was consistency. The message has not changed since day 1 and it’s the foundation of this Leader.

Bold Expectations

If a team is a reflection of their Leader, setting expectations is what sets the bar of achievement. I am still amazed at how many organizations I see where there is no expectation of behavior and achievement. Note: In the business world, “Hit your sales numbers”, is not an expectation. That is just a statement of the obvious.

For Franklin, expectations are about shaping behavior:

-Positive attitude
-Competing, in everything you do
-Focus on micro-segments of a season: 6 seconds at a time (1 play), 1 week at a time (stated goal is to go 1-0 each week)
-Not worrying about things you can’t control

While some of these may sound like leadership clichés, it’s the consistency of their execution that makes them stand out. Meet expectations…and you’re on the team. Miss expectations….and you’re not needed.

Says Franklin:

“After every game, I go over the different firsts with the team and some of the things we’ve accomplished,” Franklin said. “But we plan on getting to a point with our program where we move past all of these firsts and there’s a culture of winning here at Vanderbilt that everyone expects.

“That’s why all the talk about making it to a bowl game doesn’t really register with me. Our goals are to win a national championship and an SEC championship. We’re not going to limit ourselves by settling for anything less.”

Positive Attitude

One reason that Vanderbilt has always struggled at football is the high academic standards. The great players don’t want to have to deal with the academics or worse, simply cannot qualify to play at the school. This is a negative that every previous Commodore Coach has tried to overcome. Many have resigned to the fact that they will have to learn to win without the best players. Franklin, turned this seeming negative into an enormous positive. According to Franklin:

“Vanderbilt is the only place where you can get a world-class education and an opportunity to play in the best college football conference in America. Plus, you can get early playing time. To me, that is something to be really proud of, that is something you can sell.”

With one short statement, he turned years of a negative into an immediate positive. In fact, this became his punch-line on recruiting trips. By embracing Vanderbilt’s admission standards, yet maintaining the Expectation of leading the country in recruiting, he has willed his way to success. This is a Positive Attitude in action…far from a cliché or a simply a ‘jovial’ approach to life.

To bring an even edgier approach to recruiting and a positive approach, Franklin has been known to woo players by selling the fact that at Vanderbilt you don’t ‘rent’ a football tradition; you get to build a football tradition. Clever. Positive. Edgy.


Engagement is a combination of factors: Having an edge, polished speaking, intensity, passion, and presence. Ultimately, the proper level of engagement instills belief in the team. Winning starts with believing and when you couple belief with Attitude, it’s a potent combination.

Franklin has championed engagement in the program through transparency. Opening up the walls of the program to the public and creating an emotional buy-in from everyone: players, parents, students, administration, and alumni.

This is done most effectively through social media. If you don’t believe me, follow @jamesfranklinvu on twitter or check out these videos:

Ole Miss Game


Many organizations blow in the wind. They are constantly reacting to outside opinions and circumstances. In contrast, Franklin has proven to have a consistent and proactive approach to everything the team does. Very little is reactive. It can be summed up as:

-Focus on process, not outcomes. Do your job.
-Focus on the present. Forget what happened or what might happen.
-Maximum intensity: 6 seconds at a time, one week at a time.

Sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella talks about how successful people focus on process, not outcomes, in his book, “Life is Not a Game of Perfect”. Says Rotella,

“When people with real talent approach any endeavor, they look for a method, a process, that will lead to success. They follow that process every day. They set themselves up to succeed.”

Franklin is so focused on process and consistency; it annoys the media at times:

“For us, it’s always going to be about this week and getting better as a football team,” Franklin said. “I know some in the media don’t really buy that, but that’s our approach. We don’t even have any schedules up in our building. That’s because each game stands on its own. We’re going to do everything in our power to be 1-0 this week.”

If you’ve read books on leadership and/or books by other coaches like Nick Saban or Bill Walsh, you see similar themes. The difference is the passion, intensity, and consistency of message from Franklin. Planning and process turn hopes into belief. And belief leads to success.

The Results

So, has it worked? With essentially the same group of players that won a mere 4 games in the 2 years prior to his arrival, Franking and Vanderbilt have achieved the following:

-Franklin's wins in first 2 years are the most by Vandy coach since 1904-05
- Vandy is in a bowl game in back-to-back years for the first time ever.
-Only 1 Vandy team, since 1935, has more SEC wins than the 2012 team
-Last year, 17th ranked in recruiting nationally according to
-Finished in the Top 20 in defense nationally in 2011
-Beat rival Tennessee in Nashville this year. Last time was 1982.
-Recovered from 23-6 deficit, on the road at Ole Miss, to win.
-2012: first winning record in SEC since 1982, before that 1959
-Dores have 4 SEC wins of 23+ points under Franklin. 4 all time prior.
-4th game scoring 40+ points…first time since 1916
-Won 6 games in a row in 2012, first time since 1955
-1st time since 1873 that VU has 3 road SEC wins

The facts on the success are evident. However, the real indicator, if you’ve watched Vandy for all these years…is in the competition. The team competes like they never have before. You see it in their faces, body language, and attitude. It’s simply a reflection of their Leader.

Expectations- Attitude- Engagement- Planning ----------→ RESULTS

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