LINCOLN — Can you teach someone how to be a leader?
Can you read a book and learn how to motivate people? Can you hear a speech and learn how to take responsibility? Aren’t leaders born, not made?
Six years ago, David Sokol took then-Nebraska football coach Frank Solich under his tutorial wing. Sokol had Solich reading books about Attila the Hun. The mega-successful CEO swears Solich was making big progress at the time he was fired by Steve Pederson.
On Wednesday, Sokol was at it again. But this time his audience consisted of business owners, CEOs, salesmen, car dealership owners, high school and small college coaches — even a clergyman.
Not to mention a couple of guys named Tom Osborne and Bo Pelini.
Osborne, Pelini and Sokol took turns addressing a group of 180 businessmen and women in the Nebraska football auditorium. Ninety came in the morning session and 90 in the afternoon.
It was part of the first “Leadership 101’’ seminar. Unlike the Football 101 or 202 sessions, this wasn’t a football chalk talk. It was more the X’s and O’s of how to run a team of employees — with the occasional Husker football story for good measure.
These folks weren’t dressed in Husker gear, and they weren’t there for football. Oh sure, there might have been one or two who paid the freight just to hear Osborne or Pelini talk. But many more scribbled down the technical corporate concepts that Sokol espoused in his chalk talk.
Each man spoke for about an hour, then took turns sitting in the audience to listen to the others.
It was fascinating. It was educational. And for those expecting some secret formulas, there may have been a slight letdown. The secret was something many of them already knew.
“I came here to learn how you motivate and how you manage your people,’’ said Casey Cantin, a claims agent for Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Kansas City, Mo. “It’s all about the foundation that you put in place and doing things the right way.’’
Here are the highlights of the three sessions.
Osborne: His theme was leading by character, integrity and values. No surprise there.
He quoted from several leaders, including Warren Buffett: “Warren said the three most important things he looks for in hiring someone are intelligence, energy and character. If they don’t have the third, the first two don’t matter. If you hire someone who’s smart and has energy but no character, that’s dangerous. They can really hurt you.’’
Osborne spent a lot of time talking about three kinds of leadership: laissez faire, transactional and transformational. The first type of leader, Osborne said, “takes responsibility by appointing a committee.’’
“I know some head coaches who don’t call a play — they let the two coordinators do that,’’ Osborne said. “But then they second-guess the heck out of them on Monday. Then the coordinators are afraid to do anything except call vanilla plays. You can’t lead that way.
“If it doesn’t work out, you have to take responsibility. That’s what we saw last year from Bo after the Missouri game. Some coaches would have come into the locker room and screamed or cursed at the players. Bo came in and said, ‘I gave you a game plan that was too complicated for you to execute. That’s my fault.’
“Another thing some people do is lead by taking polls and seeing how people feel, what the hot buttons are. That’s what a lot of politicians do. I was advised to do this when I ran for governor, but that’s not what I believed in.
“I probably should have listened to their advice.’’
Transactional leadership, Osborne said, was about rewarding employees for good work or punishing them for bad work. He said instead of telling workers “how stupid they are after they make a mistake, tell them you know they can do better and you will pay them more if they do well — you will change behavior much faster if you reward and are more positive.’’
Osborne leaned toward the “transformational’’ leadership, where the leader is a role model, visionary, inspires, listens empathetically and has values the workers want to emulate.
He told a story that occurred a few years ago, when Osborne was helping Creighton basketball coach Dana Altman. The coach, Osborne said, was having a hard time reaching a player from a rough background and asked Osborne to chat with the young man.
“I just sat down and listened,’’ Osborne said. “The young man was very close to his grandmother. Apparently she was ill and he was really worried about her, and that was affecting his life in school and on the court. A big thing is listening to what people have to say. You not only get to know them, but they feel like you care and are more apt to perform for you.’’
Pelini: The Husker coach was intriguing because he’s still a work in progress as a leader. He had several gems.
Ÿ“When I was at LSU, we had staffs from other schools come to visit us and study what we do. To a man, they came out of watching film and said, ‘Oh, we already do that.’ I said, ‘What a waste of money on their part. Not one of them asked us how we do things.’ It’s not the what, it’s the how.’’
Ÿ“You have to know when to put the hammer down and when to put your arm around someone. Sometimes you’ll see a kid make a mistake in a game that results in a touchdown the other way. As he runs back to the sideline, the coach runs out to meet him and chews him out.
“Is that what’s best for the kid — or the coach? The coach is basically saying ‘It’s not my fault.’ What you have to do is pull the kid over and say, ‘You’re better than that. You’ll get them next time.’ You have to coach them up. Fix it. You don’t ever point the finger. You point the thumb — back at yourself if you’re a leader.’’
Ÿ“You can’t be the same for everyone. You have to adapt according to how people are. Some people react to criticism, and some don’t. Know your employees. It’s your job to get them from Point A to Point B. But I always try to end whatever I say with a positive thought. If you can’t let it go, they won’t let it go.’’
Ÿ“The greatest leader I’ve ever been around never said a word. It was Jerry Rice. He just showed up for every practice the same way: He did it full speed and for perfection. Every play, whether it was a walk-through or in May. The other players picked up on that and tried to be like him.’’
Sokol: The chairman of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. didn’t have a lot of war stories. He hit a lot of the same integrity and character themes, including “treat customers and employees the way you’d want to be treated.’’ To that end, he said, “I tell our managers if they aren’t spending 15 percent of their time evaluating (employees) and giving them feedback, they aren’t doing their jobs.’’
Sokol told the group that, when he was growing up in Omaha, his father would cut out positive stories in the Sunday World-Herald about business leaders, like Peter Kiewit, and pass them around to his kids.
“The message was, ‘You can have success if you work hard,’ ’’ Sokol said.
After the session, I asked Sokol if leadership could be taught — and brought up his time with Solich.
“Yes, if you are motivated and willing to work hard and you want to become a better leader,’’ Sokol said. “When Frank reached out to me, he was having to change some assistant coaches. He asked me, ‘How do I do what I have to do?’
“He had been thrust into the head coaching job without being able to make his own mark on it. Tom wanted him to keep those assistants. Frank did not confide early enough to Tom that recruiting was sliding because some of those coaches had basically retired with Tom. He needed to make some changes but didn’t know how.
“The thing I hated about the whole (Steve) Pederson thing was that Frank was making a lot of progress and had hired a good staff, including Bo, and we never got to see what they could have done.’’
Sokol was back at NU on Wednesday, but this time as a student, too.
“We all can still learn about leadership and what it takes,’’ Sokol said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here — to listen to Tom and Bo.’’
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