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Schembechler, Bacon and Leadership

Bo's Lasting Lessons book cover
image credit: John U Bacon

I have a leadership video I’d like to share with you.

First, some explanation. Every year at the University of Michigan the students select their favorite professors and present them with a “Golden Apple Award.” The recipients are then invited to deliver their “ideal last lecture.”

John U. Bacon was a recipient of this award for 2009. Bacon is the co-author, with the late Michigan Football coach Bo Schembechler, of the best-selling business book, Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Fundamentals of Leadership.

The video clip I’d like to share is an excerpt from Bacon’s Ideal Last Lecture. In it, he recounts a story about Schembechler. Now, if you’re a fan of Wolverine football, then you probably need no further recommendation. But even if you’re not, I think it’s a great leadership tale, and Bacon’s telling of the story is a work of art all its own.

Now it’s obvious that many elements of Bo’s leadership style would not translate well into today’s corporate environment. For me, though, there are a number of take-aways here that can apply to any leadership role.

  1. Real leadership isn’t always as neat and clean as it appears to be from the examples found in textbooks.

  2. Be memorable. Different leaders will do this in different ways, but if others can’t remember what you told them, then your leadership probably won’t be terribly effective.

  3. Be real. Ultimately, as a leader, all you have to offer is yourself, and if you stop short of giving that 100%, then you cheat yourself and those around you.

  4. Talk straight. Call things as you see them. Others may not agree with you, but it is your being willing to take a position and tell people how you feel that in turn gives others the freedom to agree or disagree.

  5. Always serve a higher cause. Note that Bo never asked Andy Cannavino to do anything because Bo had directed him to, or because of Bo’s position of authority: instead, he cited the great Michigan football players who had come before them, and the importance of preserving, respecting and extending that tradition.

  6. Focus on natural consequences. Again, note that Bo never threatened Cannavino with disciplinary action, or with consequences that would be brought on by Bo or his coaching staff: instead, he talked about the losses their football team would suffer and the sense of responsibility that Cannavino would be left with.

  7. Don’t wait for assurances that others will follow before you begin to lead. Note that Bo honestly did not know how Cannavino would respond to their confrontation, and that his coaching staff feared that he was provoking an out-and-out mutiny by his players; these factors, however, did not cause Bo the slightest hesitation.

  8. The highest calling for a leader is not to command others, but to awaken others to their own potential for greatness. Note that Bo never told Cannavino what to do; he never commanded him or directed him to take any specific, finite actions. And the response Bo got from Cannavino was more than he could have directed: instead of compliance, he got a team captain and a defense that was on fire, delivering 24 quarters of football in which not one touchdown was scored against them.

  9. Leadership is sometimes, of necessity, an incendiary act: acquisition of fuel and construction of the engine are important, but it still takes a spark of ignition to set things in motion.

Originally published at on 12 March, 2010.

February 6, 2023