Jim Harbaugh appeared on the The Herd with Colin Cowherd recently for an interview. The new Michigan football coach, charged with turning around a struggling program, had the listening ear of a nation. It was a chance to pitch his program. Colin even asked him to. With a national radio and television audience, it should have been fairly easy.
But it wasn’t.
Far from it. It was actually painful to watch.
Eventually, Colin ended the interview and hung up with Harbaugh.
If you haven’t, you can see the video here.
I’ve watched and re-watched the interview. It’s a gold mine of leadership lessons (both positive and negative). I took the physical pain and discomfort as a sign and discovered three critical lessons for leaders.
1.) The Importance of Play.
At one point, Colin asked Harbaugh to pretend he’s talking talking to a wide-receiver and trying to recruit him to play football. Colin wants the pitch. Essentially, he’s asking Harbaugh to “sell Michigan.”
Colin was asking to play. Pretend. Imagine.
You could almost hear the wheels grinding in Harbaugh’s head. Play? Imagine? Pretend? What’s that?
Greg McKeown in his excellent book Essentialism makes the clear and powerful statement about the importance of play:
Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes it more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged. Play is fundamental to living…” (page 86)
McKeown continues by highlighting the how play shapes our brain, sparks creativity, and plays a part in evolutionary biology. In short without play, (good) leadership is non-existent.
In coaching, I tell people to “enter the sandbox” with me. It’s a safe place to play, where nothing is right or wrong, and people can dream about the future. Without fail, those that enter in and become determined to play, leave that space transformed, more equipped to solve their problems, and as a better leader.
In contrast, Harbaugh was so fixated on avoiding play and imagination, that he not only lost the interview, but perhaps a few potential recruits as well.
The takeaway: Great leaders invest in playtime, knowing that it sparks creativity and change.
2.) Full attention and respect.
By the end of the interview, Colin was begging for Harbaugh to provide answers. He could tell that he didn’t have the attention of the person he was trying to interview. The answers were short, uninspiring, unhelpful, half-hearted, and boring (all things great leaders avoid).
I don’t know where Jim Harbaugh had his attention, but it certainly wasn’t on the interview at hand. By limiting his attention, he showed himself to be disinterested. He also communicated that he thought the interview was a waste of time, or worse, that he doesn’t like Colin Cowherd. Those may not have been things he intended to communicate, but they came through loud and clear.
One of the foundational aspects of the coaching relationship, and indeed of any great relationship, is to show up fully present. When I’m coaching someone, I very early on make the rule that we both need to be 100% present. No emailing or texting in the background. No distractions. Show up fully present and see what happens.
Great leadership functions in the same way. If we show up to meetings, sales calls, or anything else our day has, and we are anything less than fully present, we dishonor those we are with. Want proof? Think back to a time when you were talking with someone, and wanted to communicate something important, but they couldn’t look up from their phone.
The takeaway: People deserve to be treated with respect, and that means giving them your undivided and full attention.
3.) Without clarity, you go nowhere.
Several times in the interview Cowherd asked Harbaugh about decisions. What was important? How did he decide? What did he do first? Each answer was met with vague language and apathy.
To provide clarity in leadership, start by asking the question, “What do I (or we) really want?” If you can’t answer that, little fruit will be produced in any endeavor. When we aren’t clear on where we want to go or what we want to accomplish, anything becomes acceptable.
When we’re content with anything, then there’s no need for growth. Without growth, death happens. Harold Wilson once commented, “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”
The takeaway: Clarity. Vision. Values. Progress. Great leaders provide these in abundance.
Certainly nothing in this interview was fatal. Harbaugh is still employed. He still has a chance to do great things on the football field. He could still lead the Michigan Wolverines to a national championship (but let us all pray that never happens). But in this interview, he clearly displayed apathy, a lack of respect, and little momentum or vision for the future.
May we as leaders rise above those temptations and serve people well.