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The Mentor Leader : A Book Review

Tony Dungy’s third book,The Mentor Leader, will debut at #2 on the NY Times best seller list.  Like Quiet Strength (and unlike Uncommon), The Mentor Leader contains plenty of great information and anecdotes for Colts’ fans.  In the book, Tony explains his own personal leadership style, sharing how the focus of any leader should be not on the goals or outcomes but on the greater well being of the people he’s leading.

Tony rightly discusses the difference between ‘position’ and leadership, delineating how the role someone has neither ensures nor limits the impact they can have as a leader.  He mostly focuses on the ways we influence others.  He believes that ‘leadership qualities’ are not innate inborn traits, but a series of commitments by an individual to have an impact on others.

I’ve been thinking, teaching, and reading about leadership for a long time.  For the best 10 years, I’ve taught about Christian leadership, which admittedly has different end goals than other kinds.  During that time, I’ve focused on four bedrock choices a leader must make (prayer, obedience, passion-not emotion, but a willingness to endure pain, and service).  I’ve asked people for a decade to help me come up with anything that is missing from that list. The highest praise I can give The Mentor Leader is that it helped me come up with a fifth choice:  courage.

The book reads like a gentle pastoral chat by a man whose main goal is to help you help others.  The focus of a ‘mentor leader’ has to be different than a ‘traditional’ leader because the ‘mentor leader’ seeks to replace himself.  He or she is always looking for ways to build up others so that they will be ready to move ahead as leaders themselves.

For Colts fans, this gives tremendous insight into how Tony could be so comfortable stepping down as head coach.  He always saw his role to be that of a mentor to the coaches and players.  As a mentor, he knew the organization was bigger than he was and that if he had done his job well, the team would continue to have success after he was gone.  Dungy discusses the risk of this type of leadership:  people don’t recognize the work you do.  We’ve seen how some treat the Bucs and Colts success after Dungy left as a black mark against his resume.  Dungy, however, sees it as a validation of everything he believes.

It’s not a point Dungy would make, but in the case of the Bucs, who systematically tried to erase Dungy from their history under Gruden, the further they got from Tony, the worse the team became.  Now the narrative of “Tampa couldn’t with Tony” has been replaced by “Tony built the Bucs.  Gruden cashed in and then drove the team into the ground”.  Vindication comes slowly, and to his credit Tony argues that a true leader shouldn’t worry about it at all.

The Mentor Leader gives us great insight into the dynamics of the Colts coaching staff.  Tony says that one of his aims was to surround himself with people who were different than he was.  On the offensive side, Jim Caldwell has a similar demeanor to Tony’s, but Tom Moore is fiery and vocal.  Tony loved that dynamic because meant that there was always someone who could deliver the message in a way players needed to hear it.  It also gives insight into Tony’s mindset.  He told Caldwell once, “It’s not about me” and also said that the breakthrough moment for him was when he realized his only job was “to help his team get better”.  It wasn’t to sell himself or to rule and defend his own kingdom.  His focus had to be on everyone else around him and how he could help them reach their potential.

Jim Caldwell writes the forward to the book and talks about how he answers the question, “How do you fill those big shoes?” He says, “I don’t have to do it alone.” He then talks about how autonomy is the guiding force in the Colts complex and how Dungy “cultivated players and coaches without pressing, nudging without pushing, and leading without dragging”  When he took over the reigns he said, “All I had to do was tweak a few things to match my own personality and then manage from the middle, as I had seen Tony do, and not be fearful of empowering those around me.

It’s exactly this kind of stable, healthy environment that has lead to the Colts’ unparalleled string of 12+ win seasons.  The Mentor Leader is far from your typical ‘football coach’ kind of book.  It is however, warm, insightful and full of wisdom.  Whether you are interested in leadership as a subject or just interested in understanding what was happening behind the scenes of the Indianapolis Colts for the past several years, this is an outstanding book.

Here’s a video of me getting Tony to sign my copy of The Mentor Leader last week.  I gave him a gift of my own.  In person, Dungy is every bit as warm, gracious and kind as you would imagine. Nathan Whitaker, his co-author is to the left of Tony.