Leadership lessons you can learn from Clemson’s Dabo Swinney

Dabo Swinney is not considered to be a football genius like Nick Saban. Nor is he considered ruthless like Urban Meyer. And because he’s neither, Dabo Swinney is more like us than Saban or Meyer, and therefore a better example from which to learn.

How did Dabo Swinney, an unassuming, regular nice guy lead Clemson through the viciously competitive landscape of college football to its mountaintop? More importantly, what can we learn from him?

Keep improving

Swinney was not yet 40 years old when he became Clemson’s permanent head coach. It was his first head coaching job. He had a lot to learn and that learning came on the job.

Swinney lost 16 games in his first three full seasons as Tigers coach. He’s lost a total of nine in the five years since.

Dabo Swinney kept getting better. He kept learning. He kept evolving and maturing.

RELATED: Nick Saban’s continually evolution keeps him at the top of the sport

Surround yourself with top lieutenants

Dabo Swinney is the 12th-highest paid coach in college football. His defensive coordinator is the second-highest paid at his position. Combining the salaries of his co-offensive coordinators places them sixth.

Swinney famously – and for good reason – accepts a smaller salary in order for his school to afford top coordinators, thereby surrounding himself with the best minds in the field.

With the brightest minds available to him, he doesn’t micromanage his coaches. He’s not a meddler. He sets expectations and then lets his lieutenants do their jobs.

Swinney is not a genius himself, his genius comes from recognizing this and assembling the strongest brain trust around him that he can.

Surround yourself with the best worker bees

The one area where Swinney is recognized as elite is as a recruiter. Swinney knows that his team’s success, ultimately, comes from having great players. He spends a great deal of time and effort daily assuring his roster is the best it can be.

Clemson’s recruiting has gone into overdrive under Swinney.

No ego

Swinney’s salary tells you all you need to know about his ego.

Very few effective leaders – only the unique geniuses, Steve Jobs, George Patton, etc. – are primarily concerned with receiving credit. The problem with genius is you can’t replicate it. Most of us are not geniuses. I’m not. I’m guessing you’re not. Geniuses are some of the worst people from which to try and learn anything.

Not having an ego does not mean not having confidence or not having swagger. It means putting your team and your people and their success ahead of your self-interest.

Legendary two-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Coughlin said recently, “Leadership today is about serving other people.”


Swinney hires great assistants, recruits great players and then gets out of the way. What he does do is set his organization’s culture. While he is quick to deflect credit onto others, there’s no question who’s in charge or whose program it is.

Swinney sets the tone. He casts the vision.

RELATED: Could Dabo Swinney be his generation’s Bobby Bowden?


Dabo Swinney is unfailingly positive. While we all romanticize the hard-ass Vince Lombardi, Nick Saban, Bill Parcells-esque football coaches, very few effective leaders in any field lead through fear and intimidation.

Again, you’ll find those who do, like the three men mentioned previously, to be geniuses. When you become as smart as Nick Saban, then you can lead like him. Until such time, lead like Dabo Swinney.

Be yourself

Dabo Swinney is a bit of a goofball. He’s corny. He wears his religion on his sleeve. It’s who he is and he doesn’t waste energy trying to be anything different.

RELATED: Can you dance like Dabo Swinney?

(You can follow Chadd Scott on Twitter @ChaddScott)

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