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Dick Vitale: What Coaches Can Teach Us About Leadership

Here’s how to pick up some sports smarts for your job.

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by Larry Dobrow

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During his 33 years as a college hoops broadcaster, Dick Vitale has carved out a unique place within the world of sports media. Owing to his genuine enthusiasm for the sport and implacable good cheer - rare in a profession teeming with cynicism and smarm - he remains one of the few personalities who transcends generational lines. College basketball fans who grew up with ESPN love him; college kids only recently exposed to his shtick love him too.

We talked to Vitale on a topic about which he regularly speaks: leadership. Here's what he has gleaned from the college game's most renowned coaches, and how it translates to every profession in which there's a leadership component (which is to say: all of them).

Keep It Simple, Then Commit: The past and current college coaches that Vitale singles out as superior leaders - former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, current Duke and USA Olympics basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, former Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant - go out of their way not to over-complicate matters for their team members and staff. "They set the tone by being accountable for their actions and by having a game plan for each day," he explains. "They're all about discipline and they're all about being organized… Everyone talks about goals, but it is the commitment to make those goals a reality that separates them."

Be True To Yourself: At the same time, Vitale stresses that there is no single leadership mold within any profession. He points to former Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers football coach Tony Dungy - "a laid-back superstar" - as a prime example. During his time in the NFL, Dungy was known for keeping sane hours (as opposed to the 20-hour days regularly put in by coaches on the pro level) and for treating his players like individuals with individual sensibilities (as opposed to moldable husks of muscle and sinew). "Players respected the way he handled himself and that became vital to them," Vitale says. "They believed what he was saying. He went about it in his own way."

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Join the Cult of Personality: Vitale acknowledges there's a certain elusive "something" -- a leadership gene -- that prompts players and fans to line up behind a great coach. He points to the late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, retired St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca and late Marquette coach/broadcaster Al McGuire as "unique" individuals whose "personalities were bigger than anything… It was contagious to all the people around them." He's quick to add, though, that a big personality isn't enough, that leaders who attempt to slide by on charm and charisma are usually exposed before too long. "That's part of leadership, too: Maintaining the respect of the people you're communicating to, having them respond to what you're putting in front of them," Vitale says. Those with the ability (and will) to foster that respect inevitably motivate their charges better than those without it.

Assert Yourself on Social Media: At age 73 with his fame fully affirmed, Vitale doesn't fit the stereotype of a high-load Twitter user. But there he is, beaming out dispatches to his 470,000+ followers multiple times a day; on March 11, he passed the 35,000-tweet milestone. While most of his musings touch on teams and players, Vitale shrewdly uses the service to boost the brands of himself and his primary employer (ESPN) as well as promote causes that are important to him, including the V Foundation For Cancer created by ESPN and Valvano. "It's helped me connect with a lot of fans and have some dialogue. From that standpoint it's valuable." Any organization -- a small business wanting to connect with customers, a corporate behemoth wanting to connect its CEO with workers in far-flung outposts -- can use social media for that same purpose.

      See also: Why You Should Blog – And How to Do It

Don't Dawdle on Decisions: Before he started working as a commentator for ESPN -- he was behind the mic for the network's first-ever college hoops broadcast, way back in 1979 -- Vitale spent a season and change as head coach of the NBA's Detroit Pistons. He understands the different types of demands, from recruiting to rules compliance, that college coaches face. To that end, he watches with great admiration the way the game's elite leaders insist on buck-stops-here accountability. "Ultimately it falls in their hands to make decisions," he says. "A lot of people can make suggestions, but the guy up top has to make decisions." Those who delay decisions risk coming across as indecisive or weak-willed, and could ultimately lose respect as a result.