Great Leadership won the Clemson Tigers the NFC Title

Anybody who knows anything about me, knows my blood runs orange – Clemson Orange.

I started my company while a Clemson student, was named a Young Alumnus of the Year, am a chair of the university’s Spiro Entrepreneurship Institute board, speak at the university frequently and keep a limited edition can of Coke celebrating the Tigers’ 2016 National Football Championship in my office for inspiration.

So it should come as no surprise that I practically jumped out of my skin when the Tigers topped the Alabama Crimson Tide last week to clinch their second National Football Championship in three years. (Alabama fans, excuse me for boasting, but even you have to admit this 44-16 victory was pretty overwhelming.)

I can’t watch a football game – or any game actually – and not see the performance on the field or the court as a product of specific team dynamics – the role of leadership, the balance of power between players, the flow of communication, the battle of individual vs. team. It all works to create success – or failure. As a young man figuring out how the business world worked, I had the great fortune to count among my mentors Pat Williams, co-founder and senior vice president of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. I’ve built my company on the lessons I’ve learned from sports.

Here are a couple of lessons I took away from the Clemson win:

Leadership. Success comes from the top down. Since becoming the head coach in 2008, Dabo Swinney has built Clemson into one of the best programs in college football, and he’s done it through positive leadership.


For Coach Swinney it all comes back to, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”


It’s about having a genuine appreciation for everyone on the team and for each person’s role. He refers to himself as a “servant leader”   leading through listening, understanding, empathy, acceptance.

He’s worked to create an attitude of belief. “I think that we [as human beings] put limitations on our own self by how we think. You have to win in your mind first.” That’s powerful motivation for any team.

Culture. Second level coaches, like offensive and defensive coordinators, generally change jobs pretty frequently. Not at Clemson. Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott is in his 11th season on the staff. Brent Venables is in his seventh season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator.

That consistency – a constant message – pays off for both team and employee.

“The best advice I’ve been given is, ‘Don’t mess with happy,’” Scott has been quoted as saying. “That’s the best word to describe what we’ve got going on at Clemson. Everybody’s happy.”

“I value culture, success, where I live, who I work with and who I work for… I have everything I need, want and desire at Clemson,” Venables said.

The lesson is that while a leader is only as good as his team, a team can be brought to unimaginable heights with the right leadership.

Swinney’s leadership and team culture propelled Clemson to its national championship (with help from its wunderkind 19-year-old quarterback Trevor Lawrence!).

Great lessons for any business.