Ken Blanchard and Don Shula. The Little Book of Coaching: Motivating People to Be Winners. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 117 pp.
In The Little Book of Coaching: Motivating People to Be Winners, business consultant Ken Blanchard and football coach Don Shula share some thoughts about what it takes to be a successful leader both on the football field and in the business world. The book consists of a number of brief passages, many less than a page, which are individually attributed to Blanchard, to Shula, or to both authors. The passages are grouped into five sections, each devoted to one of what are described as the key characteristics of an effective coach or manager; these characteristics are named so that the first letters of the five characteristics will spell out the word "coach." Thus, good coaches must be Conviction-Driven, always guided by strongly felt and clearly articulated moral values; good coaches must have subordinates engage in Overlearning, so that they are so well prepared for their tasks that they can do them almost automatically; good coaches must be Audible-Ready, or prepared to make changes at any time if a given approach is not working; good coaches must display Consistency in all responses to both the good and bad performances of subordinates; and good coaches must be Honesty-Based, always communicating exactly what they feel and leading subordinates by setting a good example. Points are often illustrated by anecdotes from Shula's coaching career or, less frequently, by anecdotes from Blanchard's business career.
Overall, this is not a terribly impressive book. Its five sections, based on titles apparently chosen primarily to create the desired acronym, frequently overlap, and passages within sections are haphazardly organized and at times are not really relevant to the purported theme of the section. Thus, the sections on being "Conviction-Driven" and "Honesty-Based" both boil down to messages about the importance of displaying personal integrity in coaching and in business, and the sections on "Overlearning" and "Consistency" actually become lessons not on how employees should be trained or treated, but on the importance of closely monitoring one's subordinates at all times. The observations are an uneven mixture of valuable advice, vague and commonsensical exhortations that are unlikely to be helpful, and lessons about football coaching that at best relate imperfectly to other fields. Thus, it is definitely worthwhile to be advised that simply setting goals is not enough, but that one must also set up detailed plans for achieving those goals; I had not thought of that before. Yet it is not especially helpful to be told that the real secret of a successful business is to always have excellent employees, since this is both obviously true and also the sort of advice that falls into the category of "easier said than done." And the concept of "overlearning," or learning how to do something so thoroughly that people can effectively put their brains on "autopilot" and do the task automatically, may be useful in training football players how to execute offensive and defensive plays, but it would seem irrelevant to training employees who, for example, must regularly interact with customers—situations in which putting one's brains on "autopilot" would manifestly be disastrous.
In general, I am always suspicious about the value of self-help or self-improvement books or instructional seminars. While they might have a few genuinely innovative or helpful things to say, such books and seminars seem largely devoted to saying things that a person could readily think of on their own, delivered by professional consultants who may be skilled at projecting supreme self-confidence but are not necessarily as capable as they would like their audiences to believe. (The Little Book of Coaching, for example, conveniently overlooks the fact that the quality of Don Shula's football teams gradually deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s, so that he was eventually gently forced to quit coaching the Miami Dolphins.) If such books and seminars work, I suspect it is largely because their readers and participants feel that, having paid for this advice, they are obliged to follow it; thus, they have a positive effect not because they magically transform ineffective managers into brilliant managers, but because they prod managers to go ahead and actually do all the things that they have long been planning to do. So, for that reason if for no other reason, one can say that these books and seminars are indeed valuable tools in improving people's job performances.
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