Singletary v. Madden on management

San Francisco 49ers' coach Mike Singletary has gone from the Hall of Fame to coaching, and his management style shows it.

By , Guest blogger

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    San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary reacts on the sideline in the first quarter of the Oct. 17 NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders in the San Francisco rain. His players haven't given him the extraordinary effort he put forth as a Hall of Fame player. Will he more likely get them there by yelling or encouraging?
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The San Francisco 49ers won their first game yesterday, beating their even more hapless cross-Bay rivals, the Oakland Raiders. The Niners’ head coach, Mike Singletary, took over from Mike Nolan in 2008 amid much media buzz. Some immediately expect any “fiery” coach’s intensity to be the wonder drug. Early on, this piece by SFGate’s Scott McCloughan questioned the certainty of this result, noting the implosions of the intensity-is-everything coaches like Mike Ditka in New Orleans or Rod Marinelli in Detroit and the success of Tom Coughlin after ditching the “Colonel Coughlin” routine in New York. From an economic, strip-things-down-to-their-essence perspective, McCloughan goes right to the key variable in the coach’s management style and the likely source of his downfall — player effort:

Like many Hall of Fame players who have become head coaches, Singletary’s pedigree doesn’t mean he’ll be good at this new job. In most cases, Hall of Fame players fail miserably as coaches. Why? Because their players’ effort and intensity will never match their own.

Where, in my view, McCloughlan along with admirers of Singletary (when he took the job) miss it is that the focus on effort is Singletary’s problem, not the player’s. Effort matters. It matters a lot. In every workplace I’ve experienced, from concrete construction to higher ed, effort mattered and differed among employees. The whole team production story of management’s role (Alchian & Demsetz, 1972 American Economic Review) focuses on the solution to the effort problem. Most any coach with a long record of success has effective means of maintaining high effort levels. Some may do so out of fear and intimidation. Others (e.g. Bill Belichick) do it by casting off players who aren’t rowing hard enough. Some use player-leaders to promote a high-effort culture, or some combination of these methods.

Effort management is not the end of the story, however. One could view almost everything that Mike does as tilted toward a myopic fixation on effort and “sending signals” to team members along these lines. In his first game he sends talented but immature tight end Vernon Davis to the showers for a silly unsportsmanlike penalty. Ok, message sent. Then, he drops his pants in the locker room to crudely illustrate how the team was “getting it tail whipped.” Yes, coach, we get it. In a later game, he used up timeouts to pull his defense over and lecture them. Now, it’s getting silly and actually costly for the team (they needed those timeouts later). This season, the “it’s all about effort” business has continued, most recently with the tongue-lashing of QB Alex Smith on the sideline. Here’s John Madden’s commentary:

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“That’s really not part of coaching, that’s sometimes I worry about that. I see youth football and I see high school football and coaches yelling at players and I cringe when I see it. I think people get the picture that’s what coaching is and believe me, that’s not what coaching is … “You have to coach, you have to teach, you have to strategize, you have to encourage. “That’s what coaching is, not the opposite.”

Madden gives a nice synopsis of the varied elements that go into coaching/managing. My guess is that while each team needs some ongoing “effort management,” only a small number of teams have real problems in this regard, and among those, problems arise as losses mount. Given the near equal talent distribution in the NFL and a high level of effort across the board, the items highlighted by Madden become the discriminating managerial traits.

Of course, all the maniacal activity by some coaches may speak more to indulgence of their own personalities (a type of effort or “shirking” problem on its own) that I discussed in my 2007 X & Y Management post and how screaming managers could learn a lot from Tony Dungy.

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