Deion Sander’s Prime Lessons for Leading a Team to Victory

Leaders intent on boosting team performance could learn from the old-school, military-style approach of Deion Sanders, a former star athlete and now the unorthodox coach behind the revival of two college football teams.

“When I’m teaching executives, most of them say they want to hold their subordinates accountable, but they have no clue how to do that,” says Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Hise Gibson in explaining what drew him to study Sanders’ sometimes-controversial leadership style.

Gibson, who played football at West Point and spent 25 years in the Army, jumped at the chance to write a case study about how Sanders, known as “Coach Prime,” applies a military commander’s approach to motivating his team.

“Deion reminds me of military officers I’ve served under because of the clear way he communicates and the unapologetic way he holds people accountable.”

The name of the game? Sanders sets high expectations, clearly lays out the plan, checks to make sure people are following through, and provides all the logistical support the team needs to succeed both on and off the field.

“Deion reminds me of military officers I’ve served under because of the clear way he communicates and the unapologetic way he holds people accountable,” Gibson says. “He tells people what he wants. They communicate back to him what they heard. Then he maneuvers about the environment and observes if what he said is actually happening, and if it’s not, he goes back to follow up. Not one of his subordinates feels micromanaged, which is bizarre.”

It’s a leadership approach focused on self-discipline and personal accountability, one that might be considered refreshing in a business world often bogged down by managers who second-guess every move their employees make and end up impeding progress. In one survey in August 2023, for example, 73 percent of workers identify micromanagement as the biggest “workplace red flag,” saying it leads to negativity and anxiety in the workplace.

“If you think about situational leadership,” Gibson says, “there’s a place for this style that’s necessary for organizations to move forward.”

Gibson cowrote the case with Nicole Gilmore, director of talent development at MITRE; and Alicia Dadlani, director of the Mid-US Research Center at HBS.

Sanders plays in Super Bowl and World Series

Even Sanders doesn’t exactly know how he does what he does, Gibson says, but his background holds some clues.

A standout multisport athlete who has excelled in track, basketball, baseball, and football, Sanders was born in 1967 to a working-class Black family in Fort Myers, Florida. As a young player, Sanders thrived in a youth football program that emphasized discipline. The coach required weekly school reports, and if students’ grades slipped, the coach’s wife tutored the players in the locker room.

Years later, while playing football in college, Sanders began calling himself “Prime Time,” wearing flashy clothes and assuming a loud and flamboyant persona that caught the eye of major brands and led to marketing contracts.

Ultimately, Sanders would go on to become one of the only athletes in the world to simultaneously play professional football and baseball, winning two Super Bowls in the NFL and playing in the World Series.

The making of Coach Prime

After retiring from playing sports in 2006, Sanders became a commentator and then moved into football coaching. In 2020, he took over at Jackson State University in Mississippi, joining a losing program whose budget was one-thirtieth of its competitors.

The fields frequently flooded, and at one point, the water problem became so bad that the team was unable to live in the school’s housing or use its athletic facilities. Sanders moved the team to a hotel and leaned on his business ties—including executives at Walmart and Under Armour—to gather donations toward new turf fields and uniforms.

And Sanders wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves to help his team succeed—even mowing the practice fields himself if they didn’t get mowed on time. By his third year at JSU, Sanders had posted the first undefeated season in the school’s history and boosted home game attendance by 25 percent. His impact on the city of Jackson was estimated at more than $30 million, Gibson says.

In December 2022, Sanders moved to the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) to lead its struggling football program, which had achieved only one winning season in 15 years. As the school’s new head coach, Sanders took advantage of rule changes that allowed players to make money from sponsorships and transfer to other schools more easily. The changes threw college football into flux and favored programs that could draw big media attention. Sanders used the rule changes to flip about 80 percent of his roster, a move some considered controversial.

Defensive analyst coach Vincent Dancy explained Sanders’ trust-your-gut approach: “In college football, it’s all about ‘the book’ (coaches’ manual). It’s well over 100 pages long and lays out all coaching philosophies, policies, and detailed schedules. With Coach Prime, there literally is no book. He keeps you on the edge of your seat.”

For the annual Black & Gold Day Spring Football Game in April 2023, despite snow, a sellout crowd filled the stands for a game broadcast live by ESPN, a first for CU. Merchandise sales had increased 700 percent in one year. In 2024, CU would move to the Big 12 conference, where it would earn $30 million a year in media rights, drawing even more visibility to Colorado.

Coach Prime’s playbook for executives

Business leaders can learn 10 key lessons from Sanders’ success as a coach, says Gibson.

1. Know your people. During the pre-season, Sanders eats most meals in the dining hall with the team. After breakfast, he often gives short talks that touch on soft skills for sports and life, like the importance of being reliable.

“Relationships are everything. I need to really know my players and coaches so I can understand how best to reach them,” says Sanders in the case.

Gibson says managers, too, should learn what their workers need and provide the necessary support. “A lot of leaders try to tell people what to do, but they’re not equipped or developed for what they need to do,” he says. “The leader hasn’t done a good inventory of the people he has and assumes that they’re better equipped than they are.”

2. Trust your people. When Sanders got to CU, he surrounded himself with a core team of assistant coaches and other support staff who reinforced his strategy. Sanders places complete trust in the deputies working in his inner circle. Trusting a team to execute the plan is just as important in business, Gibson says.

“Allowing others to operate is a skill [Sanders] has that is normal inside military organizations that’s not normal for most people,” says Gibson. “It’s like having mini ambassadors.”

3. Discipline produces results. Sanders insists on uniformity, even a strict dress code, to encourage team unity. Earrings are prohibited. Uniforms must fit well. Socks must be black.

“Patterns of undisciplined behavior often come out at the most inopportune moments,” Sanders says. “The person who refuses to wear black socks in the training room may be the same person who costs you the game.”

Companies can set similar expectations of employees. “Every profession has the equivalent of a uniform,” Sanders says. “Every workplace has rules.”

4. Send the right message. Sanders learned early on that marketing opportunities must be actively cultivated and pursued. “He can shape players into being the most marketable they can be,” says Gibson. “Today, a college football coach needs to understand business and the acumen that goes into external marketing and internal messaging.”

In a similar vein, business leaders should support and publicly tout their employees’ achievements, Gibson says.

5. Honesty is the best policy. Even when feedback might be tough for players to hear, Sanders believes it’s important to dole it out. Assistant coach Michael Pollack explained in the case, “Nowadays, kids are not used to people being honest with them. They get their feelings hurt easily. But the harsh reality of life is that you will be replaced if you do not do your job well. You need people to be honest with you to help you grow in the right ways.”

In the same way, giving employees direct feedback makes organizations better, says Gibson. “If we are honest, the way we interact professionally, there’s more cordial, collegial feedback,” says Gibson. “Deion is coming from a generation where only the best got the trophy or the ribbons.”

6. Sweat the details. Coach Prime focuses on the small stuff, often reviewing uniform, merchandise, and apparel designs. “No one questioned if he sat in on a meeting about pedestrian traffic for an upcoming football game, reviewed a working design of a commemorative poster to be handed out to fans, or suggested new songs to the marching band,” Gibson writes.

Similarly, managers need to remember—while not micromanaging—that details can make the difference between a thriving company and a struggling one.

7. Provide the necessary resources. At CU, Sanders encountered a region with very few people of color—a stark contrast from Jackson State, and one that had the potential to impede his ability to attract the best players in college football, many of whom are Black. And since many top recruits hail from the South, Sanders recognized that they might not feel at home in Colorado.

To make the campus more welcoming, he brought in a local chef to help the university add more Southern cuisine to the dining hall menu. Sanders’ staff also worked with apartment facilities and external vendors to expand affordable housing options in Colorado for athletes attending on scholarships.

The ability to connect systems “is an overlooked skillset when you’re looking at a CIO or COO,” Gibson says. “Is the best CIO a tech person? No, the best CIO is the person who is an integrator of systems.”

8. Less can be more. When he builds practice schedules, Sanders doesn’t do what other teams do—two-and-a-half hours a day, with a set day off per week—if he doesn’t think it makes sense. Instead, Sanders’ team might practice for one-and-a-half hours daily, with different days off, Gibson writes.

Explains Dancy, “Coach is in tune with the players. He knows when to push forward or pull back. The shorter practice time puts less stress on the players’ bodies. However, practices are very intense.”

In the same way, managers should be in tune with whether employees are working too hard and should encourage them to take breaks to avoid burning out.

9. Play the long game. Sanders learned important life lessons from watching his fellow baseball players, who could be successful well into their 40s.

“You don’t see that in football,” he says. “It is mostly over in your 20s and 30s. I learned so much from watching the older players on the team. They weren’t showy. They drove pickup trucks. They had families. They understood the long run.”

Business leaders, too, need to play the long game, remembering that it takes time to develop people and foster ideas to succeed.

10. Believe in yourself. On the turf and in the office, confidence breeds success. In the case of some of Sanders’ more controversial moves, like encouraging players at CU to transfer to make room for new players, taking confident, decisive action can make the difference between winning and losing. Despite getting criticism, Sanders believed in his plan and was able to create a winning team by creatively taking advantage of the rule changes.

When he arrived in Colorado, he told the team, “I’m bringing my own luggage, and it’s Louis (Vuitton).” Gazing at his players practicing on the field later that year, Sanders told Gibson, “I don’t understand the mindset of those who think we can’t win. All I’ve ever done is win.”

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