What CEOs Can Learn from Exceptional Coaches

What CEOs Can Learn from Exceptional Coaches

I have always been fascinated by the coaches who have “it”—that X-factor that separates exceptional coaches from the also-rans.

What do they do differently as they put together a staff, organize practice, recruit talent, and manage high-stakes games? While a favorable bounce here and there helps out, it’s become obvious over my forty-plus years in athletics that consistent winning happens by design. In some form or fashion, the exceptional coaches all had a system, a routine that worked for them. John Wooden, Pat Summitt, and Paul “Bear” Bryant—with their respective Pyramid of Success, Definite Dozen, and Junction Boys—are the stuff of legends. Each is absolutely authentic. Each put in the vast amount of time, expertise, and effort it takes to achieve success.

My interest in great coaching runs through my entire career, from my early involvement in high school coaching to my experiences with intercollegiate coaching and administration, ending with my time as interim Athletics Director at Texas A&M University. It continues through today in my role as executive professor and director of the Texas A&M Coaching Academy, where I deal with the complexities of directorship over intercollegiate athletics programs. If I have learned anything, it’s that the job of building a successful athletic program is not for the faint of heart. As the homespun Coach Bum Phillips once said, “There are two kinds of coaches: those that are fired and those that are going to be fired.”

As the homespun Coach Bum Phillips once said, “There are two kinds of coaches: those that are fired and those that are going to be fired.”

John Thornton (left), director of the Texas A&M Coaching Academy

The exceptional men and women who succeed in this high-pressure role have my utmost respect. They must channel their players’ competitiveness, please their donors, and persist through public scrutiny and the incessant chatter of social media gurus. And as my mentor Coach Shelby Metcalf—hall of famer and the winningest coach in the Southwest Conference—was fond of saying, they do all this with “a scoreboard tied to their ass.”

Does that sound familiar? Perhaps a little like the CEO role?

Indeed, coaching within a Tier One athletic program like Texas A&M—with its seven-figure revenue and nearly 600 student-athletes—is a lot like leading in corporate America. Leaders in both settings face the same pressure to perform, the same responsibility to deliver wins through other people. And I believe that each role has much to learn from the other.

Here are five characteristics of the exceptional coaches I have known, each of which translates to consistent winning in the business realm.

1. Exceptional coaches define and embrace their uniqueness.

Exceptional coaches are special: they stand out in some way, whether you call it their style, their persona, or something else. They might be folksy, hard-ass, no-nonsense, or mystical, but whatever they are, they are totally themselves. They find the authentic core of themselves, share it with their teams, and use it to separate themselves from the merely average coaches. This authenticity fosters the kind of trust and loyalty that—to again quote Coach Metcalf—prevents fans “from naming a street after you one year and running you out of town on it the next.”

2. Exceptional coaches are consumed with their profession.

For better or worse, exceptional coaches live their job every day. They have an unrelenting, laser-like focus. They constantly fight for what they and their teams need to win. As an administrator, dealing with these passion-filled firebrands could get tiresome at times, but I had to realize that this was a part of what made them good. They take no days off. They are always striving for excellence.

3. Exceptional coaches are competitors.

The best coaches I know hate to lose more than they enjoy winning. They attract players with that same competitive drive, which can be a curse or blessing depending on your perspective. Recruiting, developing talent, and scheming up the Xs and Os all contribute to game-day success, but as Coach Shelby also says, “talent that doesn’t compete gets you fired.” Coaches that recruit competitors—and develop the competitive nature of their teams—are the ones who win consistently.

4. Exceptional coaches develop a culture you can feel.

Just as exceptional coaches have their own unique style, they also build a unique team identity. They make players feel like they are part of something special. Whatever the specifics of that culture are, players are motivated by the sense of belonging and shared identity. They know that their coach and their teammates have their back.

5. Exceptional coaches surround themselves with talent.

Great coaches don’t just focus on the one or two superstars—they make sure they have talent in every role. That goes for the MVP, the “glue guy” (who holds the team together), and everyone in between. They are not afraid to tinker with the process to ensure that talent is properly utilized. And they do not have a problem making the tough call and benching the underachievers.


In my time at Texas A&M, I have seen exceptional coaches perform incredible feats. One coach inherited a team that hadn’t won a game in conference play the entire year before—but after six months of preparation, he helped the team qualify for postseason play and set the stage for six straight NCAA appearances. Other coaches recently led Texas A&M teams to three national championships, a feat this institution had not achieved since 1939. These exceptional coaches, to a one, displayed the five characteristics above, which is why I strive daily to impart them to future and current coaches.

 I also believe that these characteristics are not confined to the world of athletics. Like exceptional coaches, exceptional CEOs do all of the above: they find their authenticity as a leader, build their passion for the business, harness their competitive spirit, build a strong culture, and surround themselves with top-level talent. It is no surprise to me that so many business leaders draw inspiration from the world of sport.

At the heart of leading, coaching, and winning lie many of the same principles—principles that can inspire us to higher performance, whether we are pursuing a national championship or building a world-class business.

Dr. John Thornton

Dr. John Thornton

Dr. John Thornton is the inaugural director of the Texas A&M Coaching Academy. He earned his doctorate degree from Texas A&M in 1997 and received the 1998 Academic Inspiration Award by a vote of the Texas A&M Scholar-Athletes of the Year. Previously, he served as Senior Associate Athletic Director and Interim Athletic Director at Texas A&M.

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