– Julie Nelson
Some of us in Louisiana can’t help but get caught up in the magic of the LSU Tigers and their fascinating coach Les Miles. Miles currently holds a stunning 75-17 record and his success on the field extends to his recruiting, suggesting a mixture of talent in man- agement and leadership, flavored delightfully by his own unique style.
The media has focused on Miles’ unorthodox style, underscored by the nerve-racking, edge of the seat, 2007 season, where his gambles, trick-plays, and hair’s-breadth wins, became the norm. He was nicknamed “The Hat” for his large, unpretentious cap, which morphed into “The Mad Hatter,” because of his innovative plays and a tendency to
push the limits.
Recently Miles drew attention for chewing on grass, explaining it in existential terms: “I have a little tradition that humbles me as a man, that lets me know that I’m part of the field and part of the game.”
Sports writer Austin Murphy said, “For the longest time Miles didn’t need to chew grass to humble himself as a man. He had the LSU fan base to do that for him.” (“What Will Les Miles Do Next?” SI Vault.) He’s been criticized for plays, clock management, and his communication style, described by Murphy as, “… an always original and sometimes comprehensible gumbo of declarations, digressions, distressed syntax and so-called Mile-a-props ….”
In this article, the Times publisher muses about Miles’ unique style, with some ideas from psychology to bring the coach’s magic a little way back through the looking glass.
Management and Leadership style
I asked one of our Louisiana experts in leadership, Dr. Courtland Chaney, about the style of Coach Miles. Dr. Chaney is past Professor at the College of Business at LSU, and currently instructor for LSU Executive Education.
“I believe one can make a distinction between management and leadership. Management usually refers to planning, organizing, directing or telling, and controlling people and other resources to achieve goals,” noted Dr. Chaney. “A sports coach must assure that work is managed.” He explained that examples are selecting new players, planning, and organizing recruiting efforts. “Obviously some coaches do this better than others,” Chaney said. “I believe Coach Miles does a very good job of this.”
In the SI Vault article, Murphy wrote that Les Miles had taken on the core principles of Bo Schembechler, his boss at Michigan. Murphy lists these as “integrity, discipline, toughness and the primacy of group over individual.”
Dr. Chaney explained, “Coach Miles expects people to accept responsibility for their own behavior, shows tough love when it’s appropriate, and manifests consistency in his value-based behavioral style. It seems to me he is a good role model as well as a good coach and leader. If leading by example is admirable, then Coach Miles is to be admired.”
“I would also make the case that Coach Miles is an excellent leader relative to the LSU football players and thus football team,” he said. “Putting aside any discussion of leadership traits, I would cite Coach Miles’ leadership style … Throughout the research and writings on leadership style, one finds reference to leaders showing concern (caring) for and about high performance and for the welfare of those they supervise/lead. In my judgment, this is where Coach Miles excels, and possibly holds his most important competitive advantage.”
In an Alexandria TownTalk article by Glenn Guilbeau, LSU player Michael Brockers said about Miles, “He’s the players’ coach. I feel like that’s what has really made us so successful right now. I feel like coach Miles understands where his team is coming from. He kind of relates. If you have that as players, we can do anything.”
Dr. Chaney told the Times, “I believe a review of Coach Miles’ behavioral practices over time supports the conclusion that he truly cares about the players’ personal welfare –academic, athletic, post-school life, etc., …”
To look at this characteristic from another view, I decided to run the text of an interview (“Les Miles unfiltered: Arkansas preview,” foxsportssouth.com) through the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software so I could get a rough idea of Coach Miles’ communication. The LIWC program counts words and offers a few simple, broad-brush comparisons in its online software.
The first thing that popped out is Coach Miles’ high use of social words. The LIWC gave Miles a score on social words of 12.74. We can compare this to the average for samples of formal texts (8.0) and also the average for personal texts (9.5). While not at all scientific, this fits. He does seem to like people and enjoy interacting.
“I think we’re the only team that singsChristmascarols,” sophomore defensive tackle Michael Brockers told TownTalk. “LSU’s coach Miles shows nice guys can finish first.”
Brockers said, “I remember being shy about it my first year, thinking, ‘What is this?’ And now this year, I’m up in the front leading the songs. Oh yeah, he’s very unique, and he has us doing very unique things. But he’s our coach, and we love him to death.”
Why is social connection important? Trust. Affection. Reciprocal support. Coach Miles really does like his players. He’s not faking it.
Senior linebacker Ryan Baker said in the TownTalk article, “He’s just a different coach. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s very successful. But at the same time, he’s a nice guy.”
Positive and Optimistic
The LIWC analysis also suggested that Miles focuses on the positive. His interview text had almost double the positive emotion words of the formal or the personal text samples. Coach Miles’ positive emotion words fell at 5.41, compared to 2.6 for formal texts and 2.7 for personal texts. He was also low on negative emotion words.
This is a pattern characteristic of optimists. Optimists are normally cheerful and happy. They bounce back more easily after hardships because their positive view makes them more resilient and adaptable. They make up a disproportionate number of leaders in our society because they take risks and seek out challenges.
Sounds about right. Great manager, genuine liking for people, positive and optimistic. And there seems to be a little bit of magic too.
• Transformational Grammar
Paul Crewe, sports writer for And The Valley Shook, wrote, “Put Miles into a public speaking situation and you get speech gumbo: take everything left in the fridge, throw it in a pot, and somehow, it comes out delicious, even if you don’t quite understand why,” (“Really Smart or Really Dumb, The Big-Picture Genius of Les Miles.”)
Consider this simple statement from Miles in an interview. “In pregame we looked at the purple and gold that may be in that stadium and the spots that would eventually be filled with purple and gold, and we enjoyed it.” (“Les Miles Unfiltered,” MSN.)
Psychologists who have studied Ericksonian psychotherapy will recognize this style, called transformational grammar. It is a style with many nuances and variations, depending on the listener and the goal of commun- ication. Here are just two ideas about its benefits.
Being an elite athlete is a complex job. While having high expectations is important for performance, we also know that these expectations translate into pressures that can impair performance on difficult, skill-based tasks. Also, performing in front of
an audience, even a sup- portive audience, increases reactivity. Even if the athlete feels positive about fan sup- port, the supportive audience has a detrimental effect.
Coach Miles’ word gumbo seems perfect for balancing out high expectations while at the same time softening the harmful effects of this type of stress. And it likely works because he really means it.
Another way that Coach Miles’ word gumbo might be beneficial to his athletes comes from research about “invisible support.” Coaches must give direct advice at times, but research has found that this carries an emotional cost for the recipient, such as feeling less capable.
Researchers have found that support can be more effective when it is outside of the person’s awareness or if it is so subtle that it is not perceived as support. Invisible support is associated with lower stress and stronger feelings of capability, what psychologists call self-efficacy.
“We were challenged by an opponent that talked about a rivalry and they would play to it. We told our team that is how we would rather have it anyway and lets go play. They took an edge onto the field. It did not take long to take that edge into the end zone for us.” (“Les Miles Unfiltered, MSN.)
LSU Tiger left guard Will Blackwell said in the SI Vault, “You’ve got to use your context cues to kind of decipher the meaning.”
I don’t think this style can be learned, at least not easily. I think it is more of a complex set of characteristics particular to Miles– his concern for people, optimism, integrity, man- agement skills, all coming together. In this way our Mad Hatter seems more like a Zen master, with his natural talents applied to manage high expectations for elite athletes.
All the while he keeps his feet on the ground and the grass of Tiger Stadium in his pocket, reminding him that it is just a game, and he, after all, is just a man.
(Dr. Julie Nelson is Times publisher, licensed psychologist, and consultant to businesses in organizational and talent development. She trained with Milton Erickson briefly.)