The Law of Connection: Coach Butch Jones and the Tennessee Vols

There are few things more exciting to watch in the leadership arena than a leadership transition.  No matter the cause of the transition, important questions burn in the hearts of the faithful.  Where are we going?  How are we going to get there?  How long will it take?  What will it cost?  These questions at once excite and provoke fear, for at our core we have yet to reconcile ourselves to the future.  The ultimate question, the one that addresses our greatest hopes and fears is, “Who will lead us?”.  For it is in the leader that we find strength and direction.

Depending on the size and relevance of the system in transition, the process can become highly charged with emotion and take on a life of its own.  I certainly felt that way during our recent national election.  Politics is very ugly at ground-level, and always has been, but I am grateful for a process that requires our nation to answer these questions, no matter the outcome.

I have watched another nation in transition over the past several weeks – the ”Vol Nation”.  The University of Tennessee’s football program has been in transition since parting ways with head coach Derek Dooley several weeks ago.  The recruitment of a new coach has been much briefer than our national election, but no less emotional or volatile.  Southeastern Conference football is primal to the Southern psyche.  It is massive stadiums that bloat small town populations like pigs in pythons on fall Saturdays.  It is all-day tailgates, bright school colors, and occasional drunken brawls after big games.  It is ‘Cats and dogs, tigers and hogs, and gators.  It is swarms of partiers in mature tree groves and six-figure crowds “between the hedges”.  Passions run deep.  For the team in transition, the faithful take to talk radio, message boards, and all forms of social media, demanding an answer to that ultimate question, “who is going to lead us?”.

While I have been immersed in the SEC culture for nearly 30 years now, I am still mostly a spectator. But I love it!  I grew up on Tobacco Road.  Somehow through my own marriage and those of my siblings, I have ended up with family connections to the universities of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas, as well as LSU and Vanderbilt.  I have no favorite, but I do enjoy the rivalries and the barbed taunting during holiday gatherings.  I especially enjoy watching head coaches operate in these pressure-packed conditions on game day, laying themselves bare to a hundred thousand spectators, to whom the outcome is life or death, or at least bragging rights at the Thanksgiving dinner table.  It makes for great leadership lessons.

The Vol Nation was beside itself with this one.  Smokey appeared to have a couple of “A name” coaches treed, but the trails turned cold.  Thankfully for the Vol Nation, THE QUESTION has been answered with the hiring of Butch Jones.  Coach Jones is now the third team leader in what is now a five year transition process that began with the release of Philip Fulmer after the 2008 season.  Some would argue that it has been longer than that.  I will not recount every blow to the psyche of the Vol Nation since Fulmer’s departure, but the past four years have been gut-wrenching in a variety of ways, symbolized best in my opinion by their “rock bottom” experience with coaching charlatan Lane Kiffin.  Kiffin burned rubber out of the parking lot at Neyland stadium after one disastrous year that literally left parts of the University of Tennessee campus on fire. My most lasting memory of the Kiffin era is the video of YouTube sensation “Big Vol Daddy” urinating on a screen-printed likeness of Kiffin while muttering the lame Kiffin tag line, “It’s time”.  His rant was punctuated by a fusillade of profanity that would have made a drill sergeant blush.  “It’s time, Lane Kiffin”, he sputtered as he urinated on Kiffin’s smug visage, “It’s time”.  Time for Kiffin to go.

Coach Butch Jones at Neyland

Head Coach Butch Jones in the storied Neyland Stadium

Butch Jones has been Tennessee’s head coach for just a couple of days.  He addressed many of the other leadership  transition questions at his introductory press conference.  Where?  Conference championships, national championships, and consistent greatness on and off the field.  How?  Many things I do not fully understand with my low football IQ (Tobacco Road), but it sounds like a nasty defense with a four man front, a hyperkinetic offense that runs opposing defenses ragged mentally and physically, and attracting the best coaching and playing talent in the nation.  That leaves “how long?” and “what cost?”.  The truth is, nobody knows.  What I would NOT venture to ask is, “If?”,  because the University of Tennessee has landed a gifted leader in Butch Jones.  This weekend, Coach Jones is putting on a clinic in the Law of Connection.

John C. Maxwell’s Law of Connection:  Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand

In his book, The Five Levels of Leadership, John Maxwell makes a profound observation about leadership transitions.  He states that no matter what level of leadership and success that a leader has achieved in one setting, when the leader changes organizations he or she will go right back to the bottom rung of leadership, the Positional Leader, and work their way back up in the new organization  to the level they previously had.  The journey up the leadership ladder is likely to be quicker, but the same course must be followed: from Position to Permission, to Production, to People Development, to the ultimate leadership level –  The Pinnacle.  Very few leaders achieve The Pinnacle.   My opinion is that Butch Jones was solidly a Level 4 leader at the University of Cincinnati, and very possibly a Level 5.  With four conference championships in 6 years, he certainly blew right through Level 3, where people follow you because of what you have done for the organization.  Level 3 is all about RESULTS, which will be a great experience for the Vol Nation!  When I heard that his Cincinnati team gave Jones a standing ovation after he told them he had landed the Tennessee job, I considered Level 5 a strong possibility.  It is at that level that people follow you because of who you are and what you represent.  Let’s call it a 4 for now, but it is entirely possible that Tennessee has a Level 5 leader on their hands right now.

As a gifted leader, Coach Jones knows that he must move quickly from Position to Permission, from a state of being where people HAVE to follow because of title, to a state of being where people WANT to follow.  The great leaders leverage the Law of Connection here because it is the gateway to the other leadership laws needed  to advance to this level: Influence, Addition, Solid Ground, Magnetism, and Buy-in.   All of those other laws require “taking someone by the hand”, which goes through the heart.

John Maxwell outlines six keys to connection:  1) personal authenticity, 2) relationships based on honesty, vulnerability and trust, 3) approachability, 4) mutual rapport – where individuals can be even with each other emotionally despite disparities  in knowledge, education, experience, or social status, 5) genuine belief in people, and 6) meaning and depth – when people know that you will add value to their life.

Here is a five minute clinic on the Law of Connection from Coach Butch Jones, head football coach at The University of Tennessee – his dream job!  Watch and learn, and see how many of the six keys to connection that you can find……

He has not left the Vol Nation out either, tweeting from @UTCoachJones.  Just wait until he hits the recruiting trail!  Masterful.

Vol Nation, Level 3 is next.  That’s Production, which means victories!  Coach Jones shot you straight…..it is NOT easy, and it will take time, but enjoy watching a true leader at work.  Before the production, you should observe great sacrifice, the attraction of other strong leaders to the organization (player and coach alike) and noticeable momentum.  It always helps to pay attention to the mile markers when you are on an arduous journey. My money says you are closer than you might think.  Enjoy!

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