Leading Your Troops Like Coach Boone

Business leaders should Remember the Titans when they step into a challenging management situation. How should they handle insubordination? Deceit and betrayal? Diversity and division? What would Coach Herman Boone do?

The now-classic movie character, played by Denzel Washington and based on the real coach who led a historic high-school football team in suburban Virginia, might yank his players from the field after a misstep or humiliate them in front of family and colleagues. Or he might give an icy glare to a lieutenant who has crossed him in public but save his berating for behind closed doors.

Then again, is such an “old fashioned” way of leading appropriate for 21st century organizations?

Wharton’s Kenneth Shropshire, the David W. Hauck Professor, professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, and the director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, suggested that coaches (and leaders) with one speed—such as the NBA’s infamous P.J. Carlesimo, an in-your-face kind of coach who was once choked by player Latrell Sprewell—might not end up as successful as coaches who motivate each member of his team in the unique way that works best for the given individual—such as championship coaches like the NFL’s Bill Walsh and the NBA’s Phil Jackson.

Shropshire pondered the business and diversity lessons from Remember the Titans during the first lecture of the 2012 Wharton Film Series, presented by the Wharton Film Club, which took place on March 13.

The movie is based on the story of T.C. Williams High School, which was integrated under federal mandate in 1971 by merging white and black high schools. The resulting football program becomes a powerful point of pride for the community. When Boone first takes over the team, however, tensions between the white and black players threaten to end their season before it starts.

Boone’s first solution is to separate the team onto the two buses taking them to preseason training camp by the offense and defense squads, forcing them to mingle and begin to rethink their group identities. At the end of camp, Boone takes his men on a predawn run that ends at the Gettysburg battleground.

“Take a lesson from the dead,” he tells his players. Their current struggle is not new.

Coach Boone finishes with an undefeated season in the movie and shows nuance in his leadership style, particularly when dealing with the difficult diversity situation presented to him.

But the “struggle” continues today. Shropshire touched upon a consulting project he worked on for the NFL, which is trying to figure out how to increase the pipeline of minority coaches for possible head-coaching positions on the professional level. There is no simple solution.

American society has come a long way since 1971. Children today might never have experienced a moment of racism, let alone segregation. Yet adults who grew up during Civil Rights might still be carrying baggage, Shropshire said, whiles others might still be “wrong-thinking.”

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