On Monday night Coach Jim Harbaugh led his Michigan Wolverines to a National Championship win over the undefeated Washington Huskies.
As a student of leadership, observing Coach Harbaugh during the course of his season he provided us with many unique and fascinating case studies. From his suspension, their undefeated streak, supporting Sherrone Moore during his absence, fielding questions about his future, and the integral role of his family, there were many dynamics to observe.
Through all of that, there is one aspect of his leadership I found both impressive and admirable and believe contributed significantly to their success.
If you paid attention you would have noticed that Harbaugh regularly tried to step out of the spotlight whenever possible and in turn direct the attention to the players.
Harbaugh’s desire to “step aside” and in turn “put forth his players” is one of my favorite parts of Harbaugh’s leadership.
He did this frequently throughout the year and he did it numerous times Monday night.
Postgame as he was being asked questions from Holly Rowe he essentially ended his interview early and passed it over to JJ McCarthy saying, “this is the real person you want to talk to”
On stage during the awards ceremony he brought his dad up in place of him to give the celebratory “who’s got it better than us… NOBODY” chant, while a moment later passing the spotlight to Blake Corum to be interviewed so Harbaugh could exit the stage. ESPN’s Rece Davis had to yell for Harbaugh to come back up.
One could say, maybe this is just Harbaugh not enjoying interviews but for anyone who watched closely, Harbaugh took every opportunity in all things to put the guys front and center while he stepped back.
He made it about the players first and foremost. This behavior from Harbaugh played a huge role in the empowerment of building Michigan’s player-led team.
And the player-led dynamic could be felt by those who were watching. Kirk Herbstreit during the broadcast talked about the player-led dynamic of this team and even went on to Twitter to repeat the same sentiment.
Congratulations to @UMichFootball for winning the National Championship! This team has been focused on this night for an entire year. Player led teams are the most dangerous teams. Congratulations. pic.twitter.com/ah7EetFNDp
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) January 9, 2024
It was a sentiment shared by many and repeated throughout their magical run. The players came back from last year and the players led this team to the promised land.
One thing we discuss in our work with coaches is how alpha coaches don’t often produce player-led teams. When the coach needs to be out in front and desires the spotlight, the players inevitably land in the shadows.
And when that happens it becomes challenging for the players to co-star alongside the coach. So inevitably they step back and defer to the coach putting the coach back in front.
Player-led teams require coaches to demonstrate internal confidence and security not needing to be out in front and in turn allow the players to grab a hold of the team.
Is Harbaugh a perfect leader? Of course not. Nobody is. But every leader has admirable parts and one of Harbaugh’s is his desire to make it all about his players. And that approach helped lead him to a National Championship.
Have fun and #LeadEmUp