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10 Ways to be a Better Leader, from UT Coaches

On the Forty Acres, we have some of the best motivational leaders in our athletic coaches. With football season upon us, the fall semester underway and the release of “My All American” forthcoming, here are 10 tips from UT Austin coaches to help make you a better a leader.

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The true story of UT Austin’s 1969 national championship–winning football team and legendary Longhorns coach Darrell K Royal and defensive back Freddie Steinmark will be told on movie screens across the country this fall.

Faith, family, academics and sports are central themes in “My All American,” which highlights how Royal’s and Steinmark’s leadership helped the team overcome challenging odds.

“The commonality each shared was a commitment to sacrifice,” says Daron K. Roberts, founding director of UT Austin’s Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation. “Putting the good of the group above personal gain is the tie that binds Royal and Steinmark. I believe the stories of both men provide a template for how our young people can impact others through leadership.”

[Learn more about legendary defensive back Freddie Steinmark, “My All American” and other leading Longhorns in the #UTCountdown.]

My All American movie poster

While you might not be the next one to lead the Longhorns to a national title, there are steps you can take to improve your leadership abilities and emulate the examples set by Royal and Steinmark.

“Not everybody is a natural leader, but if you find yourself in a situation in which you need to be a leader, you can learn to do it more effectively,” says psychology professor Art Markman, whose book “Habits of Leadership” explores the “Big 5” personality characteristics — extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness and emotional stability — and how those traits affect our leadership abilities and styles.

Roberts says teaching leadership is a relatively new part of higher education and the collegiate experience.

“In the mid-1800s, the dominant belief centered around the theory of the ‘Great Man.’ This person was endowed with certain traits that allowed him to lead,” Roberts says. “Thankfully, we have progressed to the point where we know that through consistent practice and self-evaluation, leaders can augment their styles and effectiveness. Within the past 15 years, people have started to understand that leadership skills can be taught.”

“Sports is a natural setting for learning leadership. The struggle to improve the situation of the individual and the team puts young men and women in a position to fundamentally change their leadership style.” Daron K. Roberts, founding director of UT Austin’s Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation

On the Forty Acres, we have some of the best motivational leaders in the country in our athletic coaches. With football season upon us, the fall semester underway and the release of “My All American” this fall, here are 10 tips from UT Austin coaches to help make you a better a leader:

1. You have to earn it

“You can’t feel entitled because you’re at the University of Texas. That [feeling of] ‘I have arrived.’ At no point have we arrived. No one is ever going to give you anything,” Head Football Coach Charlie Strong said during summer training in 2014.

Earning buy-in from people on your team is a top priority for leaders.

“The most important thing a leader does is understand that her effectiveness is only as large as the buy-in from his or her followers,” Roberts says.

After moving his team — and coaches — into a dorm to live together during the camp, Coach Strong reiterated his “you have to earn it” message:

“There is no suite over there. Our room is just the same as the players. There are two beds, and the bathroom is down the hall. It’s good. Our coaches, we need that.”

2. Pick a mission and focus on it with laser intensity

In describing Strong’s leadership, Forbes wrote:

“Strong is imbuing his team with the ethos that their focus is winning and graduating. Anything else is insignificant.”

3. Build a winning team

After winning the women’s track and field Big 12 outdoor title in 2014, head coach Mario Sategna thanked his student athletes, coaches, staff and fans, saying a “great overall team effort” made the victory possible.

Great leaders don’t only steer teams; they also know how to cultivate and use the skill sets of individual team members. Build a top-tier team and you can find top-tier success. That’s a message President Gregory L. Fenves understands. During his five-year leadership of the Cockrell School of Engineering, Fenves maintained the school’s top-10 ranking, in part, by recruiting 57 world-class faculty members to join his team.

4. Set high expectations…

“Make sure you let your habits match your expectations,” Texas Basketball Head Coach Shaka Smart told the newest Longhorns at Gone To Texas. “As basketball coaches, our mission is to help our players become the best version of themselves over a four-year period. I want you to set your expectations very, very high for yourself.”

5. …and maintain those standards

Once the standards are set, maintaining a high level of excellence is key to leadership success.

This past year, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell and Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, met with Strong to pick his brain on leadership and educating student athletes. After discussing Strong’s five core values — honesty, treat women with respect, no drugs, no stealing, no guns — Vincent said, “standards are key” to success.

“The man is taking a stand,” Vincent says of Strong. “He made it clear that playing at Texas is a privilege, not a right.”

It’s a message former admiral William McRaven, B.J. ’77 and chancellor of the UT System, echoed in a 2015 speech to West Point cadets.

“I have learned that taking care of soldiers is not about coddling them, it’s about challenging them — establishing a standard of excellence and holding them accountable for reaching it,” McRaven says.

6. Take pride in your work

When Strong took over the Longhorn football program, he made headlines after telling his players they’d have to work to earn the privilege of putting up the iconic Hook ’em Horns hand sign:

“You have to have pride within your program. When we put up the Hook ’em sign, let’s make sure that it’s being represented the right way. It’s got to mean something to them; they really have to believe in it. Have we played hard enough? Have we fought hard enough? We’re not gonna throw the Hook ’em sign up just to throw it up.”

7. Cross your fingers and look for opportunities…

Legendary coach Darrell K Royal began leading the Longhorns in 1957 and faced the challenge of turning around a one-win team. Twenty seasons later, Royal retired with three national championships — and not a single losing season. Throughout his time coaching the Longhorns, Royal looked for ways to turn troubles around, famously saying:

“You’ve got to think lucky. If you fall into a mud hole, check your back pocket. You might have caught a fish.”

8. …but don’t sweat the bad luck

“Breaks balance out,” Royal said. “The sun don’t shine on the same ol’ dog’s rear end every day.”

Finn Wittrock, the actor who plays Longhorns Legend Freddie Steinmark in the upcoming movie My All American, poses in front o

Finn Wittrock, the actor who plays Longhorns Legend Freddie Steinmark in the upcoming movie “My All American,” poses in front of a plaque honoring the defensive back. Freddie Steinmark, an underdog on the gridiron, faced the toughest challenge of his life after leading his team to a championship season. His story will be told on movie screens across the country this fall. Photo courtesy of “My All American

9. Learn from mistakes

When describing Strong and his approach to leadership, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, says:

“It’s no surprise that some of these young people will make mistakes. The NCAA and coaches, including Strong, know this and give students an opportunity to learn from those errors.”

A leader’s willingness to work through mistakes is another message McRaven echoed in his leadership advice to the West Point cadets:

“No great leader I’ve watched got it right every time,” he says. “But the great ones know that when they fail they must pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on.” 

10. Help those in need — even when there isn’t an immediate payoff

“The real make of a man is how he treats people who can do nothing for him,” Royal once said.

Being able to empathize with team members can help leaders earn buy-in from followers.

“Leadership is a contact sport,” Roberts says. “Leadership requires that an individual dissect their motivations for wanting to take people in a particular direction. But before that step, a true leader embraces vulnerability and hones his or her ability to empathize with others.”

Sometimes, a leader has to be willing to dive into the action, lend a hand and experience the realities firsthand, says McRaven, who was recently named one of the world’s greatest leaders.

“Spend time with the soldier being miserable, exhausted or scared,” McRaven says. “I’ve learned that good officers lead from the front. If you’re in combat, move to where the action is the hottest.”

[Want more tips to be a better leader? Check out these three leadership tips from McCombs School of Business professor George Gau.]

Preparing Leaders series graphic

This story is part of our “Preparing Leaders” series, which explores how students are learning valuable leadership lessons.