What We Can Learn From a National Champion…

Dabo Swinney

On January 9 there was a lot of whoopin and hollering going on at our house. Why? Because my oldest son David went to Clemson and so we are all Clemson Tiger fans.

Unless you don’t care about college football or you just crawled out of a time capsule, you probably know that Dabo Swinney and his Clemson Tiger football team beat the top-ranked and favored Alabama Crimson Tide with a final second play to win the college football national championship.

Here are some leadership traits we can learn from Dabo. I found these in an e-newsletter published by Jon Gordon and got his permission to share these with you.

  • Think Big: After Dabo Swinney was named the coach of the Clemson University football team in 2008 he had an early morning meeting with the Board of Trustees. One of the trustees said, “We want to create a football program that’s like some of the other great programs in the country” and then he named a few of them. Dabo replied, “Sir I appreciate your vision but mine is much bigger than that. My vision is to create a program where they want to be like us.”
  • Success Takes Time: Yes, Dabo and Clemson won a championship in 2016 but they lost 15 of his first 34 games and went 6-7 in 2010. Dabo thought he was going to be fired but his athletic director at the time, Terry Don Phillips, shared his continued belief in him. After that they won at least 10 games every year. Your success may take time too. Believe. Trust. Work. Improve. Grow.
  • Don’t Stop Believing: With every setback, failure and loss over the years Dabo would say “God doesn’t say oops. God doesn’t make mistakes. There’s a bigger plan.” His guiding encouragement over the challenging years was Galatians 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Some might say that Dabo is an “over believer!” Dabo never stopped believing and he kept sharing his belief with his team and they reaped a harvest.
  • Look Inside, Not Outside: Dabo continuously reminds his players to look inside into their heart, soul, spirit and passion instead of worrying about what the media, fans, and outside world thinks. He said, “I’ve told my players to let the light inside them always be brighter than the light that’s shining on them.”
  • Love Wins: After the game Dabo said love was his ONE WORD all year and he told his team that their love for each other was going to make the difference. They are a great example that love wins in the end. Maybe not today but eventually love wins. The challenge is most don’t have the patience, values or faith to commit to the process that love requires. Too many abandon people and situations when things get hard. They don’t stick to it so they don’t get to see love ultimately win.
  • Love and Accountability are the Keys: All great leaders provide a lot of love and a lot of accountability. Some in the media made it seem like Dabo is all about love and fun, which he is, but he also demands excellence and is all about the process too. He loves you and because of that he’s also going to make you better. He’s also going to hold you accountable to the team and the high standards and values of the culture. If you have love without accountability you’ll be a loving family but not a great team. Accountability without love leads to disengagement, burn-out and dysfunction. You need both love and accountability to be a great leader, family and team.
  • Live and Reinforce Your Values: Several years before making it to their first college football playoff last year, one of Clemson’s super star players violated team rules. Dabo suspended him and that meant he was going to miss the first game of the season against a very good Auburn team. It wasn’t a big violation and even the administration told Dabo he didn’t need to suspend the player, but Dabo said, “If I don’t live and reinforce our values, then what does that say to our players, our staff, our university, and our fans? If we are going to win, we will win the right way.” It’s no surprise that the waiter in the Clemson hotel in Tampa said on the afternoon before this year’s championship game that they were the best, most respectful team they have ever had at the hotel.
  • Build a Great Team – No one creates success alone. We all need a great team around us. Years ago Dabo watched a bowl game that very few people were watching. His brother Tracy asked him why he was watching it. Dabo said, “I’m going to hire that offensive coordinator.” His name was Chad Morris, and he later turned Clemson into an offensive powerhouse and spent a lot of effort and energy recruiting Deshaun Watson to be Clemson’s quarterback. Dabo then hired Brent Venables, a genius defensive coordinator who turned Clemson into one of the best defenses in the country. Dabo built a world-class coaching staff and recruiting operation that recruited and developed great players. Then he developed Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott as offensive coordinators, knowing Chad Morris would become a head coach one day. When Chad left to become the head coach at SMU, Jeff and Tony were promoted as co-offensive coordinators. They made a great team who called the key plays on the final drive that lead to the last second victory. Recruit great talent. Develop them. Attract the best from the outside. Develop your best on the inside.
  • It’s Not about the Trophy: After the game in the locker room Dabo told the team how proud of them he was for winning a National Championship but immediately shifted gears and reminded them to be champions in life. He encouraged them to be great husbands and fathers too. He said, “This won’t be the best thing to happen in your lives. There is even more in store for you. The best is yet to come.” At the victory celebration later that week he said, “Trophies will not define us ever. We will be defined by our culture and how we invest in our young men at Clemson and by the way we teach them to love, serve and care.” They won the big trophy, but Dabo was talking about their future as men and what really matters.


So how do these nine principles apply to you, to your organization and what you do? By the way, if you’d like to connect with Jon Gordon, you may do so my clicking this link: www.jongordon.com

Now go take on the week with your own winning attitude!


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