Manage or Lead? It is Okay to do Both

If you’ve read any business blogs over the past few years, you’ve probably seen some sort of stock “Leadership is better than management” post. It always seems to be an either/or proposition, too.

In that post, you’ll invariably read the author extol the power that leadership brings to typical management challenges: workers who don’t perform well, don’t always do what you ask them to do, or engage in behaviors that discourage their colleagues.  Becoming a better leader, they say, will help you avoid these challenges more easily because people will be inspired to do what you ask them without you have to be a big bad boss. And who likes bosses, right? We like leaders.

Of course, I’ve never written about that. Not because I don’t think leadership skills have value (indeed, they do) but because rarely have the people I have seen manage employees exhibit one trait or the other singularly. The pure leader and the pure manager are as common as a unicorn.

Thank goodness, too.

Can we admit to ourselves that the great recognized leaders of our time also had some fantastic management skills as well? Can we also admit that had they chosen to shun management for pure leadership, they would have been seen as abject failures?

Okay, probably not. Yet.

If you take an example from the sports world, coaches have to be good at both leadership and management to be successful in their field. If you’re in a basketball game with the game on the line with the final possession, you have to both inspire your team to be great (even after a brutally long game) and know that you have the right game plan that your players will follow to the end.

Basketball players, even great ones, question their coaches (even, yes, great ones). With limited time to brainstorm possibilities with your team though, the coach is the focal point of drawing up this final play. Whether or not you question the coach on his decision, you are going to follow through on it because you know there are consequences for not doing so.

That final play outcome is going to be driven by authority and by good management. If a coach can’t do that, they aren’t going to win consistently.

Take an example from politics. A president can be great at leading and inspiring people without being super effective at their job because they seem unwilling (or unable) to drive results through authority and managing people and results. Is that an unfair jab at President Obama? A bit, sure. But every time I hear about our obstructionist Congress (which, they are), I hear about it from someone who doesn’t want the President to do the same things his predecessors did to drive their agendas.

The point is: you need leadership and management. The best leaders, the ones we laud, do both.

Wrong For The Right Reasons? When It Comes To Employee Discipline, You Have To Get It All Right

If you follow the National Football League, you probably know about the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. In short, some of the players on the team were pooling money for big hits and injuries to opposing players. The result was a swath of suspensions for the players and coaches involved in the scandal. It left the Saints fractured as a team, and a lot of the people involved in an unhappy and uncertain situation.

In reviewing the appeal in the case, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced this week that he was vacating the punishment set forth by current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the players while confirming much of the finding of facts with how the bounty program ran in purpose.

Some people are admittedly confused by such a ruling and think the NFL is taking the easy way out. How could the players be wrong but still get off?

If you’ve worked for any time in human resources though, you’ve probably seen this issue come up on occasion. And at least from my point of view, the result is neither surprising nor particularly odd.

This excellent piece on Deadspin gives you a flavor for where I’m going with this:

Tagliabue’s ruling, by contrast, comes from an alternate NFL universe in which the flaws in the case actually matter, and the arbiter’s self-calibrated disappointment level is not determinative of the outcome. Fujita’s actions, as the ex-commissioner explains, were neither surprising nor disappointing. Now that the league has admitted there’s no evidence the linebacker paid cash for “cart-offs,” his behavior is no different than that of other players who reward their teammates off the books. Tagliabue points to similar cases involving the Packers and Patriots in 2007 and 2008 in which the teams, not players, were punished (with small fines, not suspensions) for pay-for-performance pools. “Accordingly, the NFL’s decision to suspend a player here for participating in a program for which the League typically fines a club certainly raises significant issues regarding inconsistent treatment

Indeed, inconsistency in punishment is just one way that an employee can be both incorrect in action but not necessarily get punished, at least not to the degree that he was.

In the other, more severe cases, Saints players were told to lie by their own coaches about the bounty program to NFL investigators. When the truth was found out, the players were not only punished for their actions but also for the act of lying in the course of an investigation (something that seemed to carry a much more severe disciplinary action).

In another case, simply being a player-leader was enough to warrant additional disciplinary action to be taken into consideration. That’s more inconsistency into a process. And those reasons are why the players in this case will walk with no more than a fine (if even that).

Tagliabue saved his harshest criticism for the Saints team and NFL officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell. While the players should have known better and they should have put an end to it, the conduct of the New Orleans Saints as an organization severely influenced the actions of those who were involved in the bounty system. I’ve had bad bosses who pulled down an entire department with them. If you cut off the head, the snake dies. The failure of oversight was on the Saints organization but a disproportion amount of the blame were laid on the players.

And that’s where the commissioner’s office got it wrong according to Tagliabue. They punished individuals for an organization’s failure. Were they innocent in their own right? No, but they were at a distinct disadvantage with coaches calling the shots. And while lying may be problematic in an investigation, it is even more problematic that coaches were asking players to cover up key facts and that, with union representation, players are not encouraged to implicate themselves.

The lesson here is a tough one for people who believed the players should have faced more responsibility for their actions. It should be a lesson for anyone who has to head up an investigation on an internal dispute. You don’t get justice through a broken process or through punishing employees beyond precedent because you want to send a message.

With a little hindsight (or, if I may, Monday Morning Quarterbacking), it is easy to see that Goodell would have been justified in throwing all of his office’s firepower at the Saints’ organizational leadership. In fact, as an organization, you should always feel free to err on the side of holding those in leadership positions responsible. Individual punishment should be taken when a person works inappropriately outside of the company norm, not within a badly constructed company norm.

In short, you can’t be wrong for the right reasons and still expect your discipline to stick. While the NFL was right in the facts of the case, their understanding of power structures, precedent and the inducement of organizational pressure failed them. In the end, the players reputation will suffer but none as much as the NFL and the Saints will endure.

My Not-So-Brief Thoughts On The Election

I know. I don’t like posting about politics but I’m doing it anyway. I guess that’s the advantage of having your own blog, right?

I should mention first that I didn’t vote for either of the mainstream candidates. I didn’t feel either earned my vote or filled me with any level of confidence. I don’t feel good about that. I knew that the election was the finality of a lot of my disappointment with what has become national politics and what is now the Republican party.

First, Romney was the best candidate of an awful group of finalists. That’s not saying much, though. Republicans couldn’t give the nomination away. In the end, Romney wasn’t going to win because he wouldn’t ever be bold enough to form a coalition around his actual ideas and hold steady. He never had a chance or, at least, he shouldn’t have had a chance. His fate mirrored the fate of another Massachusetts politician: John Kerry. In both 2004 and 2012, history will show that there were two very beatable incumbents and their party picked the wrong guy to get the job done.

The fact that this election was close (and without Hurricane Sandy, it might have been closer) should be a huge worry for President Obama. Not that Obama wasn’t beatable but that he shouldn’t have been beatable by candidate Romney (or any of the Republican challengers). My concerns with Obama are basically the same as they were in 2008: he lacks the leadership to get it done in Washington. I have no confidence that he will turn it around in his second term and if you look at the recent histories of second terms, you should immediately see why. For all of the accomplishments he could point to, it wasn’t result of bipartisan agreement nor a man with a strict, uncompromising vision. He let both the opposition and his own party run roughshod and got lucky with a half-term of across-the-board majorities.

For those independents who eventually broke for him, it was a roll of the dice either way. You’re gambling that Obama will grow a backbone or that Romney’s plan, whichever one comes to fruition, would be the right one.

Of course, for a lot of people, this came down on ideological, strictly partisan grounds. Most of the people who voted for either candidate wouldn’t vote for the other, ever. I don’t really care about those people since it is always a question of turnout rather than any sort of decision for them. Those people are going to be most happy or most disappointed by the result. In reality, these people should all be disappointed with how this entire election cycle went. Outside of holding the House, the Republicans looked pathetic and holding the Senate and Presidency against the people the Republicans threw at Democrats is barely an accomplishment.

On a larger scale, I wonder what is going to happen with the Republicans after this loss? I used to consider myself one but frankly, we’ve moved away from each other. The things you have to support in order to make it through the primaries are also the things that put your appeal with independents at serious risk. Running a moderate Republican out there who literally ran from his record and past viewpoints to make in-roads with the base has lost two straight elections. Something has to break. I’d like to break it towards the moderates but that hasn’t been popular in the past (and why I consider myself a former Republican, in general).

The leg they have to stand on at this point is financial prudence; a spot that is being rightfully chipped away by a decade of indulgence that they would kill the Democrats on. If they got that sorted out, along with a reasonable and reworked foreign and domestic policy agenda and a commitment to pursue all three, they could start turning things around.

I’m not betting on that though.

Meanwhile, Democratic celebrations are going to be short-lived when they realize that they still have a Republican House and the risk of filibuster in the Senate. Nobody is going to have an easy time the next two years and it won’t be easy politically to turn the tide around on Republicans unless you really start to chip away on their key issues. Assuming the President doesn’t lead and push this Congress to better results, we can probably bet on more of the same.

Forget the electoral college for a second. The nation that needs to be governed is split down the middle. That’s not changing without some significant retooling from some party.

Democrat or Republican, I hope we can do better these next four years. And after over a billion dollars spent on this one election, I would think that we could have done better. Maybe I’ll be wrong and Obama will deliver the presidency he promised four years ago and Republicans will pull their head out and devise a clear path forward in the wake of another defeat. I’m skeptical on both fronts, though. I hope for everyone’s sake that I’m as wrong as so many political pundits were in the last three months.

The Difference Talent At The Top Makes

Washington State coach Mike Leach, Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Today is the opening day for college football. Steve Boese‘s South Carolina Gamecocks are the early game on ESPN and my Washington State Cougars are the late game. When I was in school, the WSU Cougars tallied an impressive run: three consecutive 10 win seasons, including a Rose Bowl berth. WSU isn’t a traditional power but was good enough to be very good every couple of years.

Unfortunately, since that time, WSU has had a string of bad to worse seasons. While our last coach started moving the needle on the field, it was obvious the school needed a change.

Insert the legendary, former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. WSU fans are delirious. I have to admit I’m a bit excited to see a new look Cougar squad as well.

While the results have yet to show up on the field (and probably won’t for a few more years), the level of excitement, donations and season ticket sales have shot up to levels not seen since before the last winning season. There are a lot of people excited about a 5-7 win football season but it won’t be that way in a couple of years.

So much in sports has to do with the talent you have on the field and that’s why the Cougars won’t win 10 games this year. But the man or woman on top still matters.

Unwritten Rules, Sports Fandom and Company Culture

As culture continues to be a hot topic for human resources pros, I have a hard time grappling and explaining one of the most important parts of culture that aren’t defined by any one person in the company: unwritten workplace rules.

I worked at one place where nobody left company premises for lunch. This wasn’t in the handbook and there were a slew of restaurants within a mile of work (even a couple within easy walking distance). Other people have told me about places they’ve worked where nobody leaves before the boss leaves. You get the idea.

We often leave this out of the discussion when we talk about culture but it is a huge part of that and of other parts of our lives too (like taboo subjects to bring up during family get-togethers or air travel with smelly food). Or in this case, sports fandom.

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve inevitably met a certain type of fan. They’ve lived their entire lives in a place (often in a big enough city with 3-4 of the major sports) but they root for the Lakers, Yankees, Patriots, Red Wings and, worst of all, Duke basketball. No real connection to any of the teams. But if you ask the more traditional fan about this type of fan, it won’t elicit the most positive response.

Now to be clear, it isn’t against the law to just pick the best teams to root for out of thin air. But it is against some very sacred, unwritten rules of sports fandom.

People unaccustomed to sports fandom might be surprised that you can’t just pick the best team every year and just root for them to win, greatly increasing the chances that the team you root for will be successful. Enter the guy at your Superbowl party this weekend who was confused as to why you care about the outcome of the game if you aren’t a fan of either team. “It’s so illogical.”

Illogical? Perhaps. But they are as much a part of the game as hot wings, little smokies and at least one guy drinking a little too much. And go against those unwritten rules and you’ll face the wrath of your peers (like the one lady my mom’s age who decided to switch which team she was rooting for because the team she picked was doing poorly a couple of years ago).

Same thing is true of these unwritten rules at work. Walking out of work that first day to grab a bite to eat seems more logical than sitting and eating the light snack I brought and being hungry for the rest of the day. Looking back, it feels even more stupid now. But unwritten workplace rules that helps you navigate everything from getting decisions made, running through the bureaucracy of work or not getting on the bad side of the boss can make a big difference in your career. And when you’re the new jack in town, you cling to the first couple of co-workers who help translate those unwritten rules to you.

It seems silly that it’s even necessary. As silly as rooting for the same team for 30 years that has gotten close but hasn’t won the big game in your lifetime. No matter how silly it is though, these unwritten rules tie people and your workplace together and if you don’t understand them (and its impact on your culture), you’ll be in the dark. If you care about your business and the people there, you owe it to them to understand the hidden language that moves your organization.

An Entrepreneur's Legacy

“Hey Lance, do you have a moment?”

It was my friend Chad Kreutz. We’ve known each other for five and a half years, been good friends for most of that time and he recently moved down to Portland to take a job. We started working at the same company, QualitySmith (then RBS Interactive), within a couple of days of each other back in 2005.

I had just dropped off my wife at work and was heading back home. I had messaged him about some Blazers tickets earlier that week so I had suspected it might be about that.

“I have some sad news out of Walla Walla today. Are you sitting down?”

Am I sitting down? This call wasn’t about Blazer tickets.

“Rob passed away yesterday.”

* * * * *

I had known about Walla Walla for most of my life. My dad and step-mom were both born and raised there. My grandparents were from there too. My dad relocated to the Portland area in high school but after my parents divorce in the late 80’s, he went back to Walla Walla in 1993.

The place was a hick town in my teenage estimation and forced summers there in triple digit heat didn’t help that at all. After a few years though, I figured that my Dad wasn’t going to be coming back to Portland and learned to appreciate the town for what it was: fine for a visit or even an extended stay, but not more.

After high school, I chose to go to college about two hours from there in another small hick town with far too much snow and summer for my Portland blood. When I moved back to Portland after graduation, I had a retail management position that was very unfulfilling.

After the busy holidays, I started looking around for HR positions and saw that a company out of Walla Walla was hiring a recruiter. I had never heard of RBS Interactive and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live in Walla Walla (much less my fiancee). I applied though, got a call, drove the 254 miles to Walla Walla, and got hired.

* * * * *

“I’m tired of walking.”

The words escaped my lips and we both kind of laughed. It was my fourth month on the job and Rob Schmidt, the President of RBS Interactive, and I had just completed what had to be dozens of laps around the building over the last 90 minutes. We had talked, argued and gotten animated about who knows what. I finally convinced him that we needed to go get some coffee otherwise I was going to crash at my desk this afternoon.

Rob got it. Who knows how much money he spent at the Starbucks that was a brisk one minute walk from his desk to the counter but it was enough that everyone knew him there and knew what he wanted.

I knew entrepreneurs had different personalities but Rob’s energy was as exhilarating as it was exhausting, even for a guy that considers himself pretty good at this stuff.

His boundless energy, competitiveness and curiosity caused numerous “problems”: tangential meetings, interviews gone horribly wrong, poor feedback to employees and ever shifting priorities depending on where his mind was wandering that day. But those problems also caused him to take risks in a critical area to me: staffing. Walla Walla wasn’t the most desirable place to attract candidates so he signed off on risky hires in order to make it work.

And risky they were. My own hire was risky (my experience level wasn’t there) but I had other things going for me (ties to the area and the willingness and ability to put in major time). It fit with how I thought HR and recruiting could be run: flexible, risk taking and ultimately rewarding.

* * * * *

We were opening gifts at my Dad’s house on Christmas morning and I kept thinking how weird it was that we were up there. We decided to stay home for Christmas because the fall was brutal work wise. Jen had worked her first harvest at a local winery and it was busy at QualitySmith (RBS Interactive changed their name halfway through my tenure). Home was now officially Walla Walla. I was closer to my Dad than ever before, I had made new friends and I was enjoying work. I had learned to love a place I previously doubted I could stand a week.

Was Rob directly responsible for any of this? Both directly and indirectly. We had a great working relationship and he was fun (and challenging) to work for but the people he put into place and the ideas he dreamed up changed my life. We worked hard for him when we believed in his vision and we worked hard for him when we didn’t quite see it because you always wanted to give your best for him and you always thought you’d warm up to it. Countless days after everyone had gone home, I sat in Rhonda Donnelly’s office (our VP of Operations) and we would just half laugh, half shake our heads at some of the crazy ideas he would come up with.

Ultimately though, his team would put together a plan to try to bring his ideas to fruition. That gamble in staffing paid off at times and led to some amazing things. Other times, we had mud on our face and we got a bad beat. That was reality. I can’t tell you the number of times I said sorry to him. He wouldn’t allow it though. There wasn’t enough time to Monday Morning Quarterback.

When he called my cell phone at nights and on weekends, I paced with him. I tried to keep up with his frantic vocal pace. Somewhere along the line, I would figure out I was the third or fourth person he was calling about a particular idea. It was my turn to poke at it with my stick and see if I could find any holes.

I wouldn’t have changed it though. Not the location nor the people I was working with. And even when I go back to see my dumpy little rental house on 822 St. John Street or the offices we moved out of on Main Street, I feel nostalgic. This was home. At least for a while.

* * * * *

My phone rang and I saw the picture of my wife come up on the caller ID.

“I got the job in Portland.”

My wife had interviewed for a job in Portland. She was also looking for a job locally too and had only interviewed for one job in Portland. She got it and she wanted it. Saying no wasn’t an option.

People at work understood. Rob understood. They even worked with me and let me work my HR job remotely for six months. The company grew quite a bit while I was there (from 32 people when I started to over 160 at one point) but it wasn’t all fun and games. When we had our second sets of layoffs, I was working remotely. It would have made sense to cut me (Rhonda had most of my skill set, just limited time). I flew up there though and assisted with that. We closed two remote offices as well while I was working for them.

It wasn’t tougher on anyone more than Rob. It would have been crass at the time to mention to the people being laid off how much personal money he invested to give them another couple of months hoping for some business turn around. He’d pace, he’d stress and he’d ask for who we’re looking at again to dismiss.

When it finally came time for me to leave, it was tough. But every time I came to visit, he always had time to talk. He wanted to talk about QualitySmith, flying, farming and his family. He wanted to know how I was doing and would always ask me when I was moving back to Walla Walla. It wasn’t ever “if” I was going to move back, it was “when.”

* * * * *

A couple days after Chad called me to tell me Rob died, my step-mom e-mailed me an article from the local paper. His death had been ruled a suicide. That was the first time I cried about it. The shock had warn off and I was now just beyond sad about the whole situation.

I think a natural instinct is to ask yourself what you could have done differently. I just wish it were as simple as that. I had stayed in semi-regular contact with him. When I left QualitySmith, we had a great talk about how much I admired him and was thankful for everything.

Then I remembered that Rob didn’t allow us to spend too much time discussing hindsight observations. So I started thinking about the legacy Rob will leave. I was overwhelmed with how big of a swath of influence he left behind. Then I remembered a post I received on my Facebook wall a few months ago:

“Hey Lance, just wanted to say THANK YOU for hiring me 5 years ago.  Today is my 5th anniversary at QualitySmith :-)”

It was one of my first risky hires. In a less risky environment, one without him setting the pace, I don’t know that we would have hired her. We took a chance though and it made a difference for her, her family and us.

We always think about legacies after people retire or die. The final lesson Rob Schmidt taught me is that when you involve your life with people, your legacy is right now. When you’re in the employment game, you make business decisions with very personal consequences. His impact on me was immediate, cumulative and will last for the rest of my life. He had an impact on hundreds of lives directly and thousands of lives indirectly because he put his money where is mouth was consistently when it came to business. He made those decisions one by one and he’s one of the few people that understood the gravity of every situation.

Whenever I start to get involved in debates about interviewing techniques, risk assessments, performance review calendars or benefits brokers, a little voice inside me whispers me back to reality. Focus on the people and take the business personally.

Thanks for the reminder, Rob. Always.

HR Carnival – It's All About Content

My favorite part about the HR carnival is reading great posts from new people and this one was no exception. While there is no kitschy theme to this edition of the carnival, I love a lot of the content that was shared and so I want to focus on sharing what I thought was the best of the best when it came to carnival submissions this time around. So without further ado, here are my top five posts from this carnival:

Naomi Bloom tells us to more closely examine HR technology best practices. “Of the many reasons cited for outsourcing one or more HRM business processes as well as for making investments in HRM software, none is more susceptible to marketing hype than that outsourcing providers and software vendors deliver “best” practices in HRM.”

Paul Smith writes about how HR can learn lessons from inspired action. “Working together, building trust and creating something meaningful in order to have a great impact on your community is hard work. It is easier to shut down a road than it is to create a room where everyone can participate.”

Alicia Arenas writes that HR should stop trying to get a seat at the table. “Give your best. Know the business. Speak their language. Make sure everything you do ties into the company’s strategic plan. Measure and report results. And if they don’t appreciate you, if they aren’t willing to embrace change, find an executive team who will.”

Ann Bares says that while lying about working conditions is tempting, honesty still rules. “Fact is, success at most organizations requires hard work done to demanding standards.  We in HR have to be careful that our efforts to attract and retain great employees don’t cause our messages (either directly or through our programs) to disconnect from truth and reality.”

Joe Gerstandt writes that HR professionals need to do the work on diversity. “I have said numerous time before that HR should not own organizational diversity and inclusion work, and I think that there are a number of reasons for that, but lets just cut to the heart of the matter.  HR does not want to do the work.  HR likes to get credit for “getting it,” but they really want nothing to do with the work.”

Read the 41 [Update: 43] other contributions by clicking through the jump (cleverly arranged in categories for you to peruse).
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Nominate an HR Star Today

I’ve been out of day-to-day HR for over a year now and while I interact with HR and recruiter types on a daily basis, it often takes subtle (or not-so-subtle) reminders about how challenging the field can be. The people who work day-to-day and add real value to their organizations and drive innovation in the field are why I’m so passionate about HR.

When Rypple came to me and said they wanted to highlight HR folks who are doing great things in HR as part of a sponsorship on this blog, I couldn’t say no. I started brainstorming some folks who I thought might be good to feature but I figured we could do one better: my readers could nominate HR stars to highlight.

So I’m going to highlight 12 people in HR who are doing great things and they are going to be nominated by you. They could be a generalist, manager, VP, training manager, recruiter or consultant. The important part is that they are doing great things in HR for either their organization, industry or the profession as a whole.

There isn’t any sort of special prize for this. It is simply recognizing and publicizing people who are doing great things in the HR space.

Fill out the quick form below to nominate a person and check back over the next few weeks for the first HR stars to be featured! (E-mail and RSS subscribers may need to click through)

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This information will only be used to contact people who are doing great things and not to send spam or marketing information to. Thanks for participating!

The HR Stars Series is sponsored by Rypple, social software that makes feedback easy and fun. Our software is built around people, not process, which means teams actually get things done. Managers don’t waste time. People get the useful feedback that they want. Teams stay on track, learn and adapt faster, and get recognized for great work. Learn more at http://rypple.com.

Eliminate the Highs and Lows

One of the all time college basketball coaching greats John Wooden died at the age of 99 this weekend. Since there is nothing really untimely or tragic about a man who had lived a full and successful life to the old age of 99, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about one of the lessons that I learned from Wooden.

Wooden told his teams to eliminate their highs and lows in their attitudes and play to stay consistent. When they won, they stayed humble and didn’t go over the top in their celebrations. When they lost, they kept their heads up and didn’t get down on themselves for losing games (even heartbreakers). Similarly, Wooden tended to stick with consistent players rather than ones who could get hot (and subsequently cold). It was his belief that consistency was key to success at basketball (and, like many other things Wooden taught, life).

Now saying that to 18-22 year old basketball players is one thing, but having them do it is another. And many players would later admit that at the beginning of the season, they would be giggling about Wooden’s life lessons, poetry or simplistic drills used to emphasize consistency in attitude and in play. When game time came and they saw Wooden on the bench with his legs crossed no matter if they were ahead by 20 or down by 20, they were puzzled. When they won 10 straight, 20 straight and 30 straight, they believed.

What was the end result? The most dominating 12 years of basketball any team has accomplished in college basketball. Ten national championships including four seasons where they went undefeated the entire regular and postseason.

Consistency in attitude, play and achievement. Wooden understood that if you wanted consistently great results, you also had to be consistent in all of the areas that backed that up. And what sets him apart from his contemporaries to this day is that he communicated it, got buy in from his players and executed it consistently for a dozen years of terrific success.

Are you expecting consistently great results without being consistent in all of the other areas that lead to success?