By Taylor Kolste
*** The following post is the first chapter from my book, Breaking Down the 2018 L.A. Rams Offense. The first chapter of the book focuses on the personal character and leadership of coach McVay, and, in turn, the culture that his character/leadership allows him to develop within the team. As the first chapter explains, without the work ethic and humility that McVay has developed within himself, the genius of the Rams’ scheme would not exist. Without McVay’s leadership (which stems from his personal character), the Rams championship-level culture would not exist leading to poor execution of the scheme, no matter how ‘genius’ it was. I believe anyone can learn from the example set by McVay to become a better version of themselves and to become a more effective leader.
PERSONAL CHARACTER, LEADERSHIP, & TEAM CULTURE
“Sean McVay is a genius.” This is a sentiment that has been echoed by many people. This praise of McVay mirrors that of Bill Walsh when he was first building his dynasty in San Francisco. In Walsh’s book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, he has a section titled “Don’t Let Anybody Call You a Genius” where he states that “when the “Genius” title turned on me, I backed away from it as far as I could get.” I would guess that McVay would express similar feelings to the ‘genius’ label. While McVay is definitely a smart guy, I believe calling him a ‘genius’ is misguided. While McVay and his staff may have created a ‘genius’ scheme, crediting all of this to McVay’s natural intellect ignores his work ethic and other character traits that have led to his success. This also ignores McVay’s leadership abilities and does not recognize the rest of his staff for their contributions in developing the scheme. In addition to this, the team culture of the Rams, which stems from McVay and his staff’s leadership, plays just as big of a role in the success of the team as the scheme does. Former Michigan head football coach, Bo Schembechler, famously said, “I’ve always believed eye-popping innovation is not as important as perfect execution.” The way the Rams think, the attitude they take towards their work, and the way they go about their day-to-day business, in other words, their culture, is what allows them to execute the scheme to the best of their abilities. So, as the chart shows below, everything starts with the leader’s personal character.
Former Navy SEAL, David Goggins, once said that “you have to be a good individual before you can be a good team player” or leader. The type of a person that someone is leads to the type of leader they are, which will affect their ability to develop their scheme alongside their staff. The type of leader a coach is will show itself in the culture that the leader develops within the team, and the culture is what will ultimately determine how well the team can execute the scheme. So, throughout this chapter, we will first look at the personal character of McVay, mostly told through the stories of people who have been around him. Secondly, we will look at how his character allows him to be the type of leader that he is and how those around him respond to his leadership. Thirdly, we will look at the culture he has developed for the Rams, through McVay’s own words.
When reading stories about Sean McVay, the biggest character traits that stand out are his work ethic and his high level of humility. McVay’s commitment to the game, and commitment to working hard to be the best at his job he can possibly be shines through in nearly every article written about him. McVay reportedly arrives at the team facility by 4:30 A.M. every morning and is there long after everyone else has departed. McVay’s commitment to the team stems back to his playing days. His senior year in high school, McVay led his team to a state championship with a broken bone in his foot. As the story goes, “only after the title game did he finally allow himself to be seen limping across the field.” While playing wide receiver at the University of Miami of Ohio, McVay was known as one of the hardest working players on the team. He never missed a workout there “whether it was in-season or out-of-season, mandatory or optional.” One Miami teammate called his work ethic “insane.” Another remarked that McVay “was always trying to find that little extra edge, any advantage he could get.” When asked to describe McVay, former college teammate, Mickey Mann, described him as intense, competitive, and as having no “off switch.” Mann stated that McVay wanted to not only be the best receiver, but “the best, period” in anything they did. In the weight room, he would bench with the linebackers. On the field, he would do sprints with the receivers and agility drills with the DB’s. This work ethic has continued into his coaching career. Rams assistant coach, Joe Barry, once remarked “he works his ever-living ass off. He works tirelessly at every single thing he does.” When named Redskins tight end coach midway through the 2010 season, former Redskins tight end, Chris Cooley, said that their “meeting times… doubled” and that McVay would be “pumped” even after everyone had left. Note that this is also taking place long after Washington had been eliminated from playoff contention. Cooley said that he’d guess that McVay would spend “another four hours in his office” getting ready for the next meeting.
These stories of McVay’s work ethic and commitment to his job help explain his vast knowledge of the game. Many people, including both players and coaches, have marveled at McVay’s impressive recall ability of past plays. When asked if he had a photographic memory, McVay replied “I don’t know about that. I would say that I probably remember football stuff… but it’s not like you see it once and then it’s just there. I go back and watch film, watch plays, and, in my brain, I probably only have room for so much. And that’s why I don’t really know much about anything else in this world but football, which my dad gives me grief about all the time.” While McVay’s reply might just be an example of his humility (which I will get to soon), McVay’s explanation of this recall ability is backed up by research. In Daniel Coyle’s, The Talent Code, Coyle writes about Adriaan De Groot and his study of chess players. Coyle discusses what De Groot refers to as “master players.” Many people thought that these master players were successful because they possessed photographic memories. Coyle writes that many people believed these master players “were endowed with the cognitive equivalent of cannons, while the rest of us made do with popguns.” To test this theory, De Groot set up an experiment involving both master players and ordinary players. De Groot placed the chess pieces into positions from a real game, and then allowed the players to look at the board for 5 seconds before their recall of the board was tested. As expected, the master players recalled the board arrangement “four to five times better than the ordinary players did.” While this seems to support the argument that the master players just had photographic memories, De Groot wasn’t quite finished with his experiment. De Groot then re-ran the test, but this time, arranged the chess pieces in random places that wouldn’t normally occur in a game of chess. This time, the master players’ ability to recall was no better than the ordinary players. As Coyle notes, “the master players didn’t have photographic memories; when the game stopped resembling chess, their skills evaporated.” This study helps not only explain McVay’s great recall when it comes to the game, but his overall competence in general when it comes to his job. McVay is constantly working to better himself as a coach and as a leader. When asked if he had any hobbies, McVay said that he is “a fan of coaching” and likes to study other coaches. McVay has said that he is trying to add more balance in his life but only, so he can achieve “optimal job performance.” McVay says that his dad often jokes with him that he is “a total vegetable” when it comes to anything non-football.
But, his strong work ethic is not the only character trait that has driven McVay to success. The other character trait that stands out with McVay is his humility. His high level of humility helps him excel at his job for a number of reasons. This humility shows itself in many ways, but we will focus on the following: in his willingness to deflect credit to others, accept blame himself, and admit what he does not know. In interviews, McVay is quick to credit the people around him who have helped him in his quick ascension through the coaching ranks. When asked about his start in coaching, McVay stated that he had an appreciation for getting opportunities out of college that he otherwise wouldn’t have gotten if he didn’t come from a football family (his grandfather was the vice president/director of football operations for the San Francisco 49ers during the ‘80s and ‘90s). As McVay noted, “it’s not normal when you finish playing… to jump right into the NFL.” McVay went on to say that he felt “very fortunate” for the opportunities that others have opened up for him, and that in response, would work as hard as he possibly could to “make people right on the opportunities” that they’ve provided for him. Crediting others rather than believing that he is the only person responsible for his success helps keep him grounded and helps fuel that work ethic that we looked at earlier because he understands that he has to continue to work hard every day to make good on the opportunities that others have provided for him.
On the flipside of that, McVay is also quick to place blame on himself. After losing to the Washington Redskins in week 2 of the 2017 season, McVay told the team, “I feel like I let you guys down today.” He later said, “I feel like I pressed a little bit in that game… to be honest, I panicked. I was a big reason why we didn’t win that game, and that’s the truth.” Regardless of how big of a determining factor McVay’s coaching performance was towards their loss, by him placing the full blame on himself and accepting responsibility, he is giving himself the power to improve in those areas and be better by the time the next game comes around. Former UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, frequently said that focusing on what you cannot control “has an adverse effect on what you can control.” By McVay placing the blame on himself and his own performance, he is focusing completely on what he can control. One of my favorite stories that explains the power that comes from taking full and complete responsibility comes from Dr. Jim Afremow’s The Champion’s Mind:
“The Monk and the Mirror: There was once a monk who would carry a mirror wherever he went. A priest noticed this one day and thought to himself, “This monk must be so preoccupied with the way he looks that he has to carry that mirror all the time. He should not worry about the way he looks on the outside. It’s what’s inside that counts.” So the priest went up to him and asked, “Why do you always carry that mirror?” thinking for sure this would prove his guilt. The monk pulled the mirror from his bag and pointed it at the priest. Then he said, “I use it in times of trouble. I look into it and it shows me the source of my problems as well as the solution to my problems.”
After the Washington game last season, former Rams assistant coach, Matt LaFleur, said that McVay “was way too hard on himself,” and that McVay “vowed that would never happen again, and it hasn’t.” The reason performances like the Washington game of 2017 haven’t repeated themselves often is because of McVay’s ownership of the team’s poor performance. Since McVay was able to take ownership of his mistakes, he was able to learn from them and use them to make himself better, so that the team was less likely to fail in the future.
The third way in which McVay’s humility shows itself is in his willingness to admit what he does not know. Many coaches and players have stated that he has never been afraid to admit that he does not know something. Ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, said “it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” By him admitting what he does not know, it opens himself up to listen and learn from others. McVay has said himself that you must listen and learn first before you can lead. Rams assistant coach, Chris Shula, said of McVay, “He wants people that are smarter than him in their respective areas. He has no insecurities about learning from anybody.” When asked about his willingness to listen and learn from others, McVay stated, “it’s not about rank… it’s about us collectively trying to work together to help our players and our team achieve success.” He later said that it would be foolish of him to pretend to know things that he didn’t, especially with it being his first time as a head coach. According to McVay, a great coach is not afraid to ask others for their opinions. He stated that surrounding yourself with smarter people gives you a “better chance to improve.” At the same time, McVay doesn’t just bow down to authority. He listens to many people’s opinions so that he can critically analyze them to form his own. McVay shows that one can be both humble and confident at the same time by realizing that the confidence comes from the preparation. Chris Cooley said that McVay “never backs down” and will do it his way if he’s right. Cooley mentioned that he’s watched McVay “stand his ground” with coaches like Mike Shanahan, Jay Gruden, and Bill Callahan.
As we will look at next, McVay’s character, primarily his work ethic and humility, not only allows him to be the best at his job that he can be, but it allows him to lead others to be the best they can be.
In Jim Collins’ landmark book, Good to Great, Collins and his research team studied companies who made the jump to greatness and compared them with the companies who remained at a mediocre level. They found that every “good to great” company had leaders with very similar traits. They came up with the term “Level 5 Leadership” to describe these types of leaders. Level 5 leaders all shared the paradoxical blend of professional will and personal humility.
Level 5 leaders, on the professional will side, were described by Collins as more “plow horse than show horse” and were all “fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results.” On the personal humility side of things, Collins uses the “window and mirror paradox” to best explain these leaders. Level 5 leaders were known to look out the window and credit success to others whenever things went well, while also looking in the mirror whenever things went wrong placing all of the blame on themselves, and themselves only. These traits mirror those of McVay discussed in the first section of this chapter. McVay’s personal character, specifically his work ethic and humility, helps him command the respect of players just a few years younger than him and allows him to lead his team to be the best they can be.
Note that there may be some overlap between this section and the previous one on personal character, however, I believe there is one key difference personal character and leadership. Personal character precedes leadership and relates to making oneself successful. Leadership relates to helping others becoming successful. Someone cannot lead others without first being able to lead themselves, however, someone can have the character traits to become successful themselves without leading others. So, when discussing McVay’s work ethic and humility in this section, it will relate primarily to how it influences others instead of how it betters himself.
Sean McVay pushes his players hard. Former Ram, Tavon Austin, remarked last year that “McVay works us to death.” But, the reason McVay is able to do this is because of his own work ethic. McVay expects a lot from his players but never more than he demands from himself. McVay, a noted reader, has stated that his favorite book is The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh. In this book, Walsh writes that great teams bespeak “values and a way of doing things” and that those emanate from the leader. The leader sets the standard, and when the leader is the hardest working person in the building, other people tend to follow suit. Rams receiver, Brandin Cooks, stated that “When you see that from your head coach, putting into it as much as you’re putting into it as a player, you have to respect it.” McVay stated that the Rams focus on “daily improvement and daily excellence,” however, if he is going to ask his players to do that, he has to “personify those core beliefs” himself. McVay went on to say that players can feel if the leader is not living the things that they preach. Hall of Fame NFL safety, Brian Dawkins, once said that “the greatest sermon you will ever preach is the life you live.” Because McVay is working hard himself and holding himself accountable to a higher standard than everyone else in the building, players have bought-in and have worked hard for McVay in response. Rams assistant coach, John Fassel, noted that McVay “didn’t ask for buy-in, he just went about his daily business… and the buy-in happened.”
Earlier, we discussed McVay’s humility and his propensity for appointing blame on himself. This tendency to focus on what he can control allows him to continuously improve himself as a coach, but it also helps him set the standard and lead others to do the same. McVay has said himself that it’s hypocritical to ask players to be coachable if you are “above that as a coach.” McVay said that when the leader is accountable and owns their mistakes, it allows the people they are leading to do the same. McVay went on to mention the book, Extreme Ownership by former Navy SEALs, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. In Extreme Ownership, Willink writes that the concept of Extreme Ownership, or of the leader accepting full responsibility for their team’s performance whenever that performance is poor (as the window/mirror paradox goes, Willink notes that leaders who exercise Extreme Ownership push all credit for successes down the chain of command to their subordinates), “is the number-one characteristic of any high-performance winning team, in any military unit, organization, sports team or business team in any industry.” Willink also writes that “the mindset develops into the team’s culture at every level” when the leader is exhibiting this trait. McVay’s ability to take ownership of his and the team’s mistakes has definitely influenced his players. Rams Quarterback, Jared Goff, said of McVay, “More than anybody, he’s willing to take accountability for things, and when you see that from your head coach? You kind of take the identity of him… I go, Man, I need to start taking accountability, and so do other leaders and other players on the team.” This feeling has been consistently echoed by other Rams players and coaches as well. Rams defensive lineman, Michael Brockers, said that McVay placing blame on himself “allows everybody else to also man up.” Joe Barry said that it makes you think, “I’ve gotta pick my game up.”
Although McVay’s personal character helps drive others to be successful, the reason he is able to lead others is primarily because he is working for the benefit of the team, not just for the benefit of himself. People can sense if the leader is working just for themselves, or if they are working to better themselves for the sake of the team. This is how someone can have the personal character to become successful themselves, but not lead others. If McVay worked just as hard as he did now, but the players did not sense that he cared for them and was working for their benefit, the players would not work for him in response. McVay has said that some of his core leadership beliefs include “connecting with your players and really building and developing those relationships.” Rams offensive lineman, Rodger Saffold, said that the Rams have it better than anyone in the league because of how McVay “takes care of his players.” McVay once gave a speech on leadership to a camp of high school quarterbacks where he said that the one common denominator between great leaders is that they are “actually invested in those guys around them.” McVay went on to say that the best leaders make those around them better and that they “do that by actually believing in… and caring” for those around them. McVay said that when you “really care about” those who you are working with, that’s when they want to work and “play hard for you.” Rams defensive lineman, Aaron Donald, said that McVay’s leadership causes you to “just want to bust your butt for him.” But, not only does McVay care for his players, he treats each of them with respect and never places himself or anyone else above or below the standards of the team. Former Redskins receiver, Anthony Armstrong, said that McVay “would treat a London Fletcher with the utmost respect. Then he’d treat a rookie with the utmost respect and a practice squad guy with the same level of respect.” Michael Brockers said that McVay’s leadership style is sustainable because he “treat(s) men as men… and keep(s) the accountability high” so that no one is above the standard. Many coaches believe that based on rank, they are above their players and their players should not question them, rather, they should just obey their authority. Well, great leaders and coaches who are confident in their abilities don’t mind being questioned because it holds them accountable and makes them better. Many great leaders actually encourage their players to provide them with feedback on how they can get better. As was mentioned earlier, McVay frequently says “that nobody is above being coached, especially and including” himself. Chris Cooley said that most football coaches don’t explain why they are doing what they are doing and normally just say, ‘this is how we’ve always done it.’ Cooley said that McVay “will tell you whatever you want to know” and will always explain the why behind their methods. When asked about Cooley, McVay replied that Cooley made himself a better coach and that he appreciated Cooley’s questioning because it “forced an accountability” on his part to be on top of his game. By explaining the why, McVay was tapping into a powerful leadership tool that is likely to increase buy-in from those the leader is leading. In Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s sequel to Extreme Ownership, The Dichotomy of Leadership, they write that the most important thing a leader can do is explain the why behind their mission and methods, and that leaders must never take on an “attitude of ‘because I said so.’”
This same concept of respecting others and not placing oneself above others applies to how McVay deals with his staff as well. When hired in Los Angeles, McVay was “secure enough to hire experienced, highly regarded assistants without feeling threatened.” This allows him and his staff to come up with the best ideas possible for how to run the organization, since it is not just the head coach doing everything. This is why I stated earlier that the genius of the Rams’ scheme stems from both McVay’s personal character and his leadership. His personal character is what has allowed him to develop his high football intelligence, and his leadership abilities allow that football intelligence to be combined with the intellect of the rest of his staff. In Good to Great, the research shows that the great companies had leaders who put together teams full of great people who would “debate vigorously in search of the best answers.” The mediocre companies were more likely to employ the “genius with a thousand helpers” model where one person did all the thinking.
So, what exactly is the culture that McVay planned on developing in Los Angeles? To answer this question, it is best to take McVay’s word for it himself. In March of 2018, McVay appeared on Positive University Podcast with leadership consultant, Jon Gordon where he outlined the culture of the Rams. McVay stated that when he got to LA, the first thing he did was work to establish the culture starting with their first team meeting. McVay said the first thing you have to establish is what your core values are because those will drive your everyday process. McVay stated that he’s a big believer in having daily standards of performance, or daily goals, because “everybody wants to win a Super Bowl,” but you can only get there by focusing on being your best every day. As McVay said, “culture drives expectations and beliefs, expectations and beliefs drive behavior, behavior creates habits, and habits create the future,” so everything starts with establishing your culture. When asked what specifically the Rams valued in their organization, McVay stated that he first wanted to establish a culture of “We Not Me” because there’s something “truly special about being part of something bigger than yourself.” McVay said that they establish their culture of “We Not Me” through two things: football character and communication. They break football character down into four phases: discipline, accountability, dependability, and coachability. They define discipline as “doing what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to do it, and doing it that way all the time.” Accountability is defined as “taking full responsibility for your actions” with “no excuses.” They define dependability as “being dependable to compete to your best” in everything that they do. Coachability is defined by McVay as “the desire to improve by listening and then implementing a coaches’ critiques or instructions to help yourself improve.” When speaking about coachability, McVay mentioned that no one person is above being coached, especially himself as the head coach. McVay then moved on to communication, which they breakdown into verbal and visual communication. McVay stated that their communication has to be “clear, open, and honest” because “where communication lacks, negativity fills the void.” When asked how he implemented this culture, it all came back to leadership. McVay stated that the leader must genuinely believe in the culture they are preaching, or else players will feel that and will not buy in. McVay then went on to say that the leader must have a clear-cut philosophy that is constantly being communicated, so that the players know and understand what their culture is about. McVay said the nice thing about sports is, you can revisit those messages in creative ways “where it’s not saying the same thing, but it’s still giving the same message.”
Others have reported that the contrast between the current Rams culture is strikingly different from the culture of the previous staff. Under Jeff Fisher, the Rams had ‘Victory Mondays,’ which were designed to give the team extra days off after a victory. Under McVay, a new sense of urgency was instilled in the team as they focused more on the process of daily improvement and daily excellence, so that they could become the best they could be rather than focusing on the results. It has been noted that McVay borrows heavily from great coaches, John Wooden and Bill Walsh. McVay has even re-created Wooden’s famous pyramid of success to fit their culture. Below shows a recreation of the pyramid that shows itself on the walls of the Rams’ facility and on their t-shirts.
In the center is the central theme of their culture, ‘We Not Me.’ The bottom row of the pyramid, as McVay discussed earlier, helps support the ‘We Not Me’ theme. Next up on the pyramid is a focus on meeting daily standards and on the process of daily improvement and daily excellence. Focusing on the process of doing the things they need to do to be the best they can be on gameday allows them to perform with poise and confidence. Todd Gurley once said after a game this season, “We don’t feel pressure, we apply it.” John Wooden famously defined success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to become the best at which you are capable of becoming.” Because the Rams take on this mentality, they are able to focus on their preparation. Because success is about the process, not the results, they are able to play on Sundays with full confidence because they know that they are already successful if they did everything they could to prepare to the best of their abilities. At the pinnacle of the pyramid, where one can reach if they follow the rest of the pyramid, is ‘Competitive Greatness,’ Wooden’s term for being able to perform at your best. Wooden defined ‘Competitive Greatness’ as being “at your best when your best is needed” and enjoying “a difficult challenge.”
You can contact me by email at TaylorKolste@gmail.com or on Twitter at @TaylorKolste if you have any questions, or feedback on how future articles can be improved.
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