A minor drama has been playing out in college basketball over the past few years that intersects directly with my ongoing interest in leadership and management. You don't have to care about basketball for this to be a worthwhile read, but I'm going to have to set the stage, so bear with me for a few paragraphs.
Coach Matt Doherty, now at Florida Atlantic University, was fired in 2003 after just three seasons at the University of North Carolina, where he'd been an outstanding player 20 years earlier under legendary coach Dean Smith.
Before his high-profile failure at UNC, Doherty's coaching career had been on a steadily upward path. And in his first season at Carolina, he'd even been named national Coach of the Year. But in Doherty's final two seasons the team performed far below expectations, suffering its first losing season in four decades, and Doherty alienated everyone from the university athletic department to his own players. Perhaps most significantly, there were steady rumors that Doherty's aggressive coaching style masked an out-of-control anger management problem, and he had few defenders when he left Chapel Hill.
UNC then tapped Roy Williams of the University of Kansas. Williams quickly turned the UNC program around and won a national championship in his second season--with players Doherty had recruited--contributing to the impression that Doherty's poor management had caused the team's earlier troubles.
Doherty had two years remaining on his UNC contract at an estimated annual salary of $650,000, so I'll understand if you're reluctant to shed a tear for him. But in sports circles this was regarded as one of the most spectactular coaching failures in recent memory, and for a man who'd experienced continued success in a highly visible profession, it must have been excruciating. (I'm indebted to SportsProf and Thad Williamson for their perspective on these events.)
So what did Doherty do while he was collecting on that fat contract for two years, before he returned to coaching with Florida Atlantic in 2005? According to an SI.com article by Stewart Mandel, he traveled with his family, did some pro scouting and TV work...and he enrolled in some executive management seminars at Wharton and Darden.
Specifically, in 2003 at Wharton he took a class with Frances Johnston, co-chair and managing director of the Teleos Leadership Institute, a consulting firm based in Philadelphia that focuses on change management and leadership development. Mandel suggests that this was a transformative experience for Doherty:
Afterward, Doherty approached Johnston, whose clients more commonly include CEOs and other business-world leaders, to tell her how much he identified with her lecture [on the importance of emotional intelligence.] Soon he was devouring books on leadership and making monthly visits to Philadelphia to meet with her.
"Matt had the self-awareness to recognize that management of his own emotions was one of his issues at UNC," says Johnston, who holds a master's degree in sports psychology [as well as a doctorate in adult and organizational development.]
Doherty appears to have retained Johnston as an executive coach, although Mandel doesn't use the term in his article:
On the day of the Campbell game, Doherty's first order of business was a 9 a.m. phone call with Johnston, one of several regularly scheduled chats they've had throughout the season.
If the rumors about Doherty's profane tirades at UNC are to be believed, his inability to control his temper was a major cause of his undoing there. Admittedly, he was in a terribly difficult position, trying to live up to Dean Smith's record of success and an entire state's expectations. But instead of relieving the pressure by finding allies and motivating them to work toward the team's success, he only increased it by alienating everyone who was in a position to support him (particularly his players, several of whom had considered transferring to another school.)
I wouldn't suggest that college coaches--or anyone in a high-profile management position--seek primarily to curry favor and make friends. Being a hardass, when appropriate, is a useful skill, and people respond to a wide range of motivational techniques, including discipline.
But there's more to leadership than command authority, and Matt Doherty's experience during and since his time at UNC suggests three big take-aways for the rest of us:
1) Management Style Matters. A reputation for having high expectations and exacting standards can be an essential management tool. But when even the Army is revamping boot camp to provide recruits with "a more positive leadership approach," we need to use care in how we establish that reputation, and how we communicate our expectations and standards to others. At UNC, Doherty apparently just cursed more frequently and louder. It seems likely that he's added some new skills to his repertoire, judging from the Teleos Leadership Institute's approach:
Resonance - and resonant leadership - is a hallmark of the best-managed companies... [R]esonant leaders mobilize people and large systems through encouraging passion, hope and optimism, building powerful partnerships and relationships, and capitalizing on the emotional reality of their teams and organizational culture. Resonance exists when an organization, team or leader can fully engage and optimize the talents of its people in the pursuit of goals and objectives that are shared within the group.
And Doherty's comments to Mandel reinforce this point:
"Leadership is now a passion of mine," says Doherty. "I feel like I learn something every time I talk to [Johnston.] We talk about the development of groups and how it relates to team dynamics. At first they're infants, completely dependent on you, then they evolve into adolescents and try to test you. Once you realize this is the normal progression of a team, you get less frustrated."
Doherty's success prior to UNC wasn't an accident. But as Joe Murphy, a mentor of mine, likes to say, "Successful people sometimes succeed in spite of themselves," and Doherty would appear to be a case in point. His management skills were being undermined by his management style, and at UNC that imbalance finally caught up with him.
2) Change Agents Need Sensitive Antenna. Doherty clearly sees himself as something of a change agent. Just prior to his arrival at UNC, he spent a year at Notre Dame, where he took a program that hadn't had a 20-win season in a decade and went 22-15. Doherty and others credit his success at Notre Dame to his high-energy, comprehensive approach and his commitment to revitalizing an organization that had grown complacent.
But change is a complex process, and what works in one setting can be disastrous in another. It appears that this is what happened to Doherty at UNC. Thad Williams has a concise description:
[I]t was hoped that Doherty could bring some fresh energy to the [UNC] program--and that he did--but it was also assumed and hoped that he could play the role of "successor" to Dean Smith: that is, continuing what was good about the program while also bringing in some fresh ideas of his own.
What happened instead can be described usefully by the metaphor of "regime change." That is to say, Matt Doherty soon made it very clear that this was now his program, he was calling the shots, and that it was not a simple continuance of the Smith-Guthridge era...
In short, in attempting to place his stamp on the program, Doherty moved aggressively to clean a house that most people thought wasn't dirty--or at most needed a little dusting--to begin with.
Doherty's failure to sense that what had worked so well at Notre Dame was not going to have the same effect at UNC isn't necessarily surprising. We all tend to rely on those tools and techniques that have served us well in the past. But when we're consciously acting as change agents, it's essential to pay particularly close attention to how our agenda and our actions are being perceived.
It's not clear to me whether Doherty failed to pick up on the resistance his actions were generating at UNC, or whether he sensed those cues and thought he could safely ignore them. Ultimately, it's a difference without a distinction--his inability to integrate feedback from the environment and tailor his approach as a change agent doomed him as a new leader.
3) We All Have the Capacity for Change. Despite Doherty's earlier successes, the failure at UNC clung to him and made it difficult for him to find another top-tier coaching position. (Consider that Carolina's home games attract roughly 20,000 fans, while before Doherty's arrival Florida Atlantic averaged just over 500. Five hundred.) He wasn't washed up, but his reputation as a volcano waiting to erupt insured that big-time athletic directors were going to wait until he'd proven himself in a low-stakes job like FAU before they took a gamble on him.
Mandel suggests that Doherty's work with Fran Johnston has had a significant affect on him:
After spending a day watching Doherty interact with his team, it's evident he has a more amicable relationship with his current players than he reportedly did at North Carolina...
[W]hen his...Blackberry alarm goes off in the middle of the session, giggles cascade through the room as several players raise an arm behind their head and wiggle five fingers -- a team sign for the $5 fine Doherty now owes.
"At UNC, I got mad if a cell phone went off on the bus or in a meeting, and I ended up making them run sprints," says Doherty. "Coach Walters [now a member of his staff] started the five fingers, and it's become kind of a fun thing. It's fun to take the fine yourself, to show you're not above the rules."
At the time of his firing, Doherty was 41 and had been coaching for 15 years. He was old enough and experienced enough to give potential employers reason to believe he was unlikely to change. Doherty surely realizes that good press about his changed ways will increase his chances of returning to a major program, and anyone with an ounce of sense in his position would rein in his temper and say the right things for a few years.
But if Doherty were simply telling reporters like Mandel what they wanted to hear, there'd be no need for an ongoing relationship with an executive coach like Johnston--in fact, there'd be little use in sitting through all those management seminars in the first place, unless this is just an elaborate spin campaign. Anything's possible, but it seems more likely to me that Doherty was so shaken and humiliated by the UNC experience that he took a serious look at his management philosophy and style and realized that he needed to change.
I'm not really all that interested in college basketball, but I think Doherty's story is a compelling one, and I'll be interested to see if he's truly learned from his failure at UNC and uses the opportunity at Florida Atlantic to preach--and practice--a new management gospel.
UPDATE: I made a number of edits for clarity, added references to Thad Williams' article (which I found after writing my initial draft), and added the second take-away on change agents.