The Way to Win at Work, From Football's Winningest Coach

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison reflects on career lessons he learned from a South Carolina coaching legend.

Published: Dec 4, 2019

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I’ll never forget the words of America’s winningest football coach, John McKissick of South Carolina’s Summerville High School: “Coaches don’t win games, players do. Players don’t lose games, coaches do.”

In those words, McKissick—who over the course of a six decade-long career led his football team to 621 victories—captured the secret to successful leadership. Victory belongs to those on the front lines, while defeat ultimately is borne by the leader.

Coach McKissick came to mind when I learned he had died at age 93 on Thanksgiving Day. McKissick started his career in 1952 when Harry Truman was president. Over the next 62 years, McKissick amassed an unbelievable record: 621-155-13—all at Summerville High School where he coached the Green Wave. He also won 10 South Carolina state championships.

Several years ago, during an interview for my book, No Fear of Failure, McKissick walked the halls at Summerville High School just as students were passing classes. “Hey, Coach!” a young man called out. “Next year, I’m playing for you!” The student turned and walked backwards a few steps as he continued down the hall. “I’m ready and I’m playing for you.”

McKissick smiled and called back to the young man. “I know you are.”

In that simple gesture and few words, McKissick embodied one of the most important parts of leadership, which many aspire to, but few actually achieve: Followership. Whether on the gridiron or in the workplace, it’s never about the leader. Rather, it’s all about transforming individual self-interest to shared interest.

Here are five gems Coach McKissick shared in our interview:

  • “I don’t coach football. I coach kids.” Coach McKissick never lost his focus on what was most important: his team. He knew that one of the biggest motivations for any individual is the sense of belonging to something bigger than one’s self. For Summerville’s Green Wave, that meant being part of a winning legacy—and it’s up to the coach to make that vision a reality. In sports or in business, strategy without talent is pointless, and talent without strategy is helpless. Great leadership optimizes both.
  • “The most important thing to me was to teach self-discipline.” McKissick sharpened his edge, physically and mentally, as an army paratrooper in the 1940s. He instilled that same sense of self-discipline in his team by requiring players to commit to a code: “to live clean, think clean.” By honing their discipline, players brought the best of themselves to every game. No wonder then that most of those games ended in victory.
  • “As my daddy used to say, ‘Son, if you don’t put something in the bucket, how are you going to get anything out of it?” Those words sum up McKissick’s view about the hard work that goes into every game. While winning carries its own rewards, losing has its consequences, such as a tough practice on a Saturday morning to make up for Friday night’s mistakes. After a rare losing season (1957), McKissick reviewed the game film, eager for the next season to start—and to give his players a chance to redeem.
  • “When things go wrong, I say, “Learn from it.’” While McKissick was known nationally for his many victories, he also experienced plenty of adversity, especially in his young life. His father’s business failed, and the family home burned to the ground. Rather than be defeated, McKissick used that hardship to propel himself forward toward a better life—and to teach his players how to recover from setbacks. One defeat that stuck in McKissick’s mind was the 2009 state championship. Even though his team had a victorious 11-2 season, and despite the fact they were ahead 21 points at the half in the state championship game, the Green Wave lost. “Things happen,” McKissick said stoically. “You teach them not to fumble, but they are going to fumble.” The real issue, then, is learning from that fumble.
  • “I’ve always tried to do it one game at a time.” On his right hand, McKissick wore a ring with the number 500 set in diamonds—a gift from a former player in honor of the coach’s 500th McKissick, though, never seemed overly attached to the tally—not when there was a game to play. “All I want is…just one more game,” he used to say. “Same in life or anything else, you’ve got to take care of what is happening now.”

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