In the summer of 2013, Gary Pinkel had a problem.
Pinkel, the head football coach at the University of Missouri, was coming off a 5-7 season in the school’s first year in the Southeastern Conference, widely regarded as the best college football conference in America.
Rumors were swirling that if Pinkel didn’t improve in the upcoming season, he’d be fired. The conventional wisdom was that Pinkel wasn’t talented enough to lead Mizzou to success in the SEC.
As summer turned to fall, Pinkel had another problem. An assistant coach called him with the news that star linebacker Michael Sam had just told a group of players and coaches that he is gay.
Good luck, coach! The cameras will be here in 30 minutes!
By now you likely know the story. Sam later declared to the outside world that he is gay, setting up the chance that the National Football League will have its first openly gay player in history. Sam was the 2013 defensive player of the year in the powerhouse SEC and is projected to be a third- to fifth-round draft choice in the NFL.
The key word there, of course, is that Sam “later” talked publicly. At least five months elapsed between the time Pinkel got the initial call from his assistant coach and the time you and I started seeing Sam on the news.
No leaks, no rumors — at least not to the outside world, which is remarkable considering our 24/7 news culture and the stature of both the Missouri program and Sam as an individual star.
Oh, and I almost forgot: Missouri went on to have a historic football season, advancing to the SEC Championship game and finishing the season ranking in the top five nationally.
How did Mizzou do it? How did it get the combustive news regarding Sam and emerge with the best season in school history?
The answer can be found in leadership. That’s leadership with a small “l,” not a capital “L.” Let’s take a look at what Pinkel did as the head football coach, according to published reports and interviews.
First, it’s interesting to note that the very meeting where Sam formally told a group of players and coaches he was gay was part of a formal team meeting structure. Pinkel had set up small groups designed to help the players from different parts of the team get to know each other.
Those small groups routinely featured players sharing deep details about themselves, which had to be a mechanism in Sam feeling comfortable enough to share who he was.
Decentralized groups, run by the players. Trust ensues.
But after Pinkel received the initial call about Sam, that trust could have been blown up. Pinkel needed to figure out what to do. He chose to lead through his most trusted team members.
Instead of holding a team meeting, Pinkel decided to decentralize the response. He met with his captains daily following Sam coming out to the team, asking them, “What’s going on?” and “How’s the team doing?”
Leadership with a capital “L” would have called for big team meetings, with Pinkel front and center. Leadership with a small “l” is more decentralized. Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking it’s not leadership. We’re wrong.
Pinkel changed his style in other ways. For instance, he became more relaxed. He had never allowed music during warm-ups in practice, but, during the 2013 season, there it was blaring from the speakers while the players stretched and went through initial drills.
Players got more comfortable and relaxed.
Finally, Pinkel trusted his entire organization. He never had separate meetings with the team about how they should handle it, and he never asked them to keep Sam’s orientation a secret. He looked at the team he had — with plenty of senior leadership — and figured they could handle it. It also didn’t hurt that Sam was a high performer and reportedly solid citizen.
Now ponder this: Pinkel was at risk of losing his job and had a potential huge distraction dumped on him before the season. But rather than try to control it, he went the other way, trusting everyone around him and teaching them to trust each other.
Missouri responded with a magical season — cementing Pinkel’s security as the team’s coach for years to come.
Did that happen by chance? I think not. The team responded to Pinkel’s cool and took his lead. In doing that, Mizzou showed the world how to handle diversity in one of the most difficult circumstances imaginable: a player declaring he is gay in the macho world of football.
That’s leadership. Go Mizzou.