Prime Time Leadership
By Robert F. DeFinis, Ed.D.
Any sports fan of the 90s is at least vaguely familiar with Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders (aka Prime Time)! He was a two-sport all-star in professional football and baseball. He is known for his charismatic personality, braggadocious opinions of himself, and a flair for the dramatic! However, he is considered a pop culture icon and had the respect of athletes and sports writers to land him a spot among the greats in Canton. In recent years, he has found a new calling…coaching. He is currently the Head Football Coach for the University of Colorado. A program that has not seen success in quite some time. That all changed this past weekend! Sanders brought his leadership brand to the struggling Buffalo team this past offseason; it was fireworks from the start! After their massive upset in the season opener over nationally ranked TCU, it had me thinking…what unique characteristics does Coach Prime Time possess?
It is evident that Deion is authentic, sets clear expectations, fosters a winning mindset, and unconditionally loves his players. He demands much but is willing to celebrate achievement and doesn’t hesitate to call it like it is.
Clear Vision and Purpose
From the moment Deion stepped onto the University of Colorado Campus, he communicated a clear vision for the program's future. He set the stage for what it takes to be a winning team and how they would get there. He took it a step further by being transparent that not everyone will make it and that it might no longer be the best place for those team members who do not believe in his approach or philosophies. Essentially, he established that there was indeed a new sheriff in town and tough decisions needed to be made.
Confidence and Self-belief
Again, Deion exudes confidence. Some might falsely identify this as arrogance, but the difference is that he can back it up. He has produced on and off the field time and time again. He comes with more than words and a plan. He executes his vision while moving his followers in the right direction by strategically preparing them better than his opponents. Interestingly, this aspect is done in the shadows while his flamboyant comments are done to distract and bring attention. I equate this to almost like Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactics in boxing. Fooling his opponent to miscalculate and then be taken out.
Due to his background and accomplishments, he speaks from experience, and those impressionable young athletes drink it up! Many leaders have cut their teeth in the trenches. However, Deion has done it at the highest of levels. He comes with war stories that very few have and are willing to share. I can only imagine the lessons and personal experiences he uses to teach and mentor these men.
Work hard and play hard! From his press conferences and pre/post-game speeches, Deion understands the importance of celebrating achievement and being in the moment. It is understood that at the DI college football level, the amount of preparation and commitment is off the charts, but I don’t think he ever loses sight that these are student-athletes. They, too, require a space to express excitement and joy when they achieve great things that need tremendous dedication. Sometimes, leaders can be so focused on “what's next” that they forget the great things that just occurred.
Lead with Love and Compassion
Deion is a hugger! Every opportunity he gets to talk about or embrace one of his student-athletes, he doesn’t hesitate. Watching his face light up when they excel shows you that he is committed to their success. It goes beyond winning a football game. It goes beyond them graduating from the university. He is responsible for their mental well-being, personal growth, and becoming exceptional humans – something he takes seriously.
There are many theories and approaches to leadership. Often, the situation dictates what type of leadership we need to engage in. Deion is showing a hyper-focused style on confidence, outcomes, and love. It is gaining much attention and looks pretty receptive to the college student-athlete. I would not advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, but much of what Deion does is basic and rooted in good motivational practices. The difference…his execution of it! At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Coach Prime Time with 1 or 2 National Championships under his belt when it's all said and done.