Real Characters: Coach Herman Boone, Remember the Titans

This is another analysis in a series of articles I like to call “City Managers are Real Characters,” contemplating how your favorite fictional characters might fare in our field. Local government management isn’t for everybody. Does your sitcom sweetheart have the chops to handle a budget crisis?  Previously: Anthony Soprano, City Manager


By Matt Horn, City of Geneva, NY, City Manager

Connect: LinkedIn, Podcast, and Twitter

So here’s a little deeper challenge–when one of my favorite stories is based on a real-life character. I spent some time tossing and turning over whether Coach Boone qualified for this series. At the end of the day, I’m the head coach here, and what I say goes. You got a problem with that? You can hit the showers.

So, we know from experience that sports characters, particularly leaders–quarterbacks, coaches, and the like–end up in all sorts of businesses once their time on the field has passed. My famed Washington Redskins have produced commercial pitchmen, car dealers, and even members of Congress. But how would even the most seasoned of quarterbacks, or in this case, a championship coach, fare in the world of public administration? Let’s take a closer look.

For the uninitiated, Coach Herman Boone (the real and the Hollywood-embellished) led the first racially integrated high school football team in the Washington, D.C. region to a Virginia state championship. Along the way, he battled lots of forces we experience in public management–internal strife among his team, a community divided over cultural differences, and an impatient cadre of leadership, ready to change course at the first sign of adversity. Coach Boone ultimately navigated these rough waters, but not without having to learn a few things along the way. In the end, he became a better leader for it. Good enough to be a City Manager?

Traits to Celebrate

Winning a championship takes talent and leadership ability. It means you know how to motivate a team toward a vision, and execute on the right strategy in the face of the most challenging of circumstances. Coach Boone does this time and time again. He does it with some of the skills you might attribute to a City Manager who is trying to coach his community to a championship season.

He’s Passionate

“Fifty thousand men died right here on this field…fighting the same fight we’re fighting today…”

In public service, command and control rarely works. Nor should it. In order to lead a team consisting of overworked department heads (whose talents are incredibly sought after), unionized workers, volunteers, and others with plenty of recourse when they disagree, you must be inspirational–and inspiration starts with passion. You have to believe firmly in the cause, and be willing to sacrifice any personal gain to get there. You have to have that burning motivation and dedication to your craft, such that others see it in you, believe it themselves, and act accordingly.

Coach Boone has passion by the bucket. His eyes are focused intently on one point on the horizon (the championship), and he inspires his team to believe it is within their grasp. Passion is a powerful force, but it can be exhausting. Author and Forbescontributor Erika Anderson notes that true passion is remaining committed, even through difficult circumstances. Coach Boone stared down the athletic and cultural opposition, and never let his fire burn out.

He’s Persistent

“…will..you…ever…quit?”

On that note, success is rarely achieved by floating down crystal clear, calm waters. True leadership means identifying and assessing the challenges ahead, tackling them head on, and learning from them. It means dealing with some losses, and ensuring that you’re a better leader, and your team is a better team for having lost. It also means managing the cards you’re dealt, and developing strategies for turning the toughest hand into a winner. We’ve all heard the stories about Milton Hershey or Walt Disney’s bankruptcies, and seen the seemingly endless motivational posters positing that we should “never ever give up,” Fun anecdotes to ponder, but harder to deal with in real life.

Coach Boone dealt head-on with cultural and operational challenges. When his team created internal roadblocks to unity and success, he obliterated them. When his leadership threatened to “kill the experiment” if he didn’t win, he found a way to win. When the officials found a way to cheat him, he found a way around. As public managers, we’re going to face internal and external challenges. We’re going to lose a lot of battles. The trick is to learn from the losses, redesign your program or project (or re-communicate it), find a different path to your objective, and charge on.

His Work Ethic is Immeasurable

“Football is about controlling that anger…harnessing that aggression into a team effort…”

Every great coach has stories about sleeping on his office floor during championship runs. Back to my beloved Redskins–Joe Gibbs basically said goodbye to his family in July, and reunited in January during his multiple Super Bowl seasons. When I think of leadership and work ethic, I remember another legendary figure reignited by Hollywood–Lt. Col. Hal Moore (from the amazing film adaptation “We Were Soldiers”). There’s an iconic image of Colonel Moore, landing in battle, his boot the first to touch the ground. Then, toward the end of the film, his boot being the last to lift with the departing chopper. The simple fact is, if you’re going to be a winner, you’re going to have to outwork your peers.

Coach Boone was a worker–plain and simple. And he expected work from his team. He woke them before dawn, worked them until after dark, and asked them to dream about championships when they went to sleep. He brought playbooks and game film home, and spent every waking hour during the season thinking about winning. Unfortunately for us, our season is 365 days long. We’ll never be able to have friends or healthy family relationships if we pour in that time and effort year round. But the principles are the same–prepare incessantly, develop “muscle memory” that helps you recognize a challenge on the path ahead and work around it with very little time on your side, and conduct after-action reviews to prepare for the next game. Rinse. Repeat. We all work long hours. Make them count.

Things to Watch Out For

There are no career undefeated head coaches. We all carry around little personality and behavior quirks that expose us to potential losses if not managed well. Coach Boone is human, just like you and me. But do his weaknesses preclude him from being a great public manager? Your call. Here are a few areas to focus on:

He Isolates Himself

“This is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law…”

Every great leader has moments where she feels like she’s in it alone. In the car ride home from that one Council meeting, where they shelled your development proposal. What did you do wrong? Worse–when you get home and your spouse asks how things went: mopey face, single word response, retire to seclusion. Not healthy for anyone. We work so hard to develop these great teams. Further, we engage our residents so that we can capitalize on their talents. But, at the end of the day, we often feel alone with our decisions.

Coach Boone had a set of skilled assistant coaches and an incredibly talented team on the field. Once the winning started, he had an entire community behind him. Nevertheless, when things started to slide in a game, he worked to bring all the decisions back inside. He developed the game plan himself, and he wasn’t open to suggestions about how to improve upon it. Yet, in nearly every circumstance where he did look to another coach or player for insight, he was successful. Losses are tough enough without shouldering all of the burden. In the face of a tough decision, or the ramifications thereof, assemble your closest advisers and ask for advice on next steps to take, or on how to deal with a tough blow. Reserve the final decision for yourself (even if it is to go with the will of the team), but don’t carry all of the burden. You’ll be better for it, and your team will appreciate the access and involvement.

His Delivery Could Use Some Work

“I may be a mean cuss, but I’m the same mean cuss with everyone out there on that field…”

Command and control leaders tend to think of things as very linear–there is the right way (i.e. my way), and the wrong way (i.e. any other way). As a result, their delivery can be very matter of fact. Raising questions is rarely tolerated, and often met with an even more gruff response. Coaches are often wired to think this way. This does not translate well to private business, and translates even worse in the public sector.

Our teams are most likely to believe in us when we can provide a full picture of our decision-making process. The more information they have on how we arrived at a decision, they better they are able to process our direction, and the more effective they can be in delivering on our vision. There are a few times where, for the sake of time, we must be curt. If those are far and few between, your staff will likely read those as urgent, and deliver without question. These rare incidents can be improved upon by circling back when the pressure is off, thanking the team for the quick response, and explaining why expediency was required. As a rule, the louder you talk, and the more vulgar/disrespectful the verbiage, the less effective the communication becomes. Even in times of stress, find the most respectful way to deliver a sense of urgency.

He Has Trust Issues

“…I will not be intimidated. That’s just the way it is…”

Ok, so he deserves some room here. Coach Boone was put at the helm of an immensely challenging social effort, during one of the most heated eras in American history. There are plenty of actual examples of how he and his players had to deal with bias to continue on the path toward their vision. As with most challenges, the trick is in how you navigate them, and Coach Boone did this beautifully.

Leadership authors talk lots about getting the right people, in the right seats, on the bus. You have to build a team that you can trust. Once they are in place, you have to test that trust regularly. “Working around” staffers you can’t trust will soak loads of time for you and your team. Make trustworthiness an explicit attribute for each of your key leaders. Demand it, and when you sense it isn’t there, deal with it swiftly and with as little disruption to the team as possible.

Based on this, did Coach Boone convert on 4th and inches to get onto your interview shortlist? From my standpoint, this guy is a winner. He has lots of work to do on his command and control philosophy, but he is a hard worker, and could overcome this with effort. I’d say give him some situational interview questions, challenging his ability to take input from peers and team members, and if he shows promise, give him a shot! It’s a Hail Mary, but could be worth the effort…

Supplemental Reading