What Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell learned from a retired Navy SEAL about leadership

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press

Yes men are a no go for new Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell.

The time spent with a retired Navy SEAL helped reinforce his long-held belief that transparency and honest feedback are core principles in any successful program.

“I think there’s a lot of people nowadays that have a hard time of saying things the way they really are,” Campbell said in January. “I think they have a hard time of telling these grown men that they’re wrong or they don’t like what they’re doing, and explaining why they don’t like it and what the problem is.

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“For example, if a guy comes in late, just hypothetical, and you don’t say a word to him but you just fine him, that does nothing. You need to talk to the kid. Open up, ‘What’s going on? Why were you late? This is not going to happen again.’ But you have to confront. It’s healthy. It’s the only way you can learn.”

In New Orleans, where he was assistant head coach for five seasons, Campbell said Saints head coach Sean Payton “did an outstanding job of confrontation,” not just with players but with coaches on his staff.

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“And I don’t mean that in a negative light,” Campbell said. “He would tell you exactly where you stood and what he had a problem with and what he saw that was good. In any coach, in any player. And I think that goes a long way.”

A blocking tight end who played 11 NFL seasons with four different teams, Campbell told the Free Press last month he appreciated straight talk from the men he played for.

“(Bill) Parcells was always like, ‘Hey, if you want to know where you stand, come to my office. And you know what, you may not like what you have to hear. You might not like what I have to say, but you’ll know exactly where you stand,’ ” he said. “And I do, I think it’s important.”

As a coach, he learned the value of that firsthand during his time as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins, who employed retired Navy SEAL, Curt Cronin, as a consultant.

Campbell called Cronin “an unbelievable resource to me” after he took over as interim head coach early in the 2015 season, because of both his “uncanny ability” to read people and his relentless positivity.

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Though Cronin “wasn’t super open” about some of his stories as a SEAL — he was deployed 13 times and earned two Bronze Stars for combat valor, according to his bio with the Broadway Strategic Fund, where he now serves as a general partner — Campbell said he was “very forthright” about how he and other SEALs approached their missions.

After each operation, team members who take part in it hold an after-action review to discuss in detail what went right and what went wrong. The feedback from those sessions is then used to plan and execute future missions.

“It was always, man, they do their mission, they get done, they take like a 45-minute breather, a cool-off period,” Campbell said. “They all separate. None of them are with each other. They unload their gear, they have time to kind of cool down, settle down, and then one by one they meet with each other, and they sit in a chair across from each other, about a foot from each other, and one starts, and they all go through exactly what they felt was done right, and then a concern that they had about their teammate.

“He was telling me about one of the missions he had, ‘I dealt with urban warfare, but they’re in kind of one of these houses.’ He goes in and he’s in the room, well his partner’s supposed to have his right shoulder, and he goes, he realizes his partner is looking over his left shoulder down the other hallway, which is not where he’s supposed to be. So those little things, he’s like, ‘Man, I went in and you’re on my left instead of my right. I’m like, that could have been the difference. That’s how you get killed.’

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“So they air all of those things. They aired everything out. The, ‘Hey, I hated the way you hesitated, man. You can’t hesitate.’ And so they unhash everything, good and bad. They get it all out to the forefront. Like, they’re not allowed to leave until they hash out any little thing, because once that happens, as long as it takes, when they get up from those chairs, they wash their hands of all that. It’s done. And now you communicate and you know exactly where each other stands. And I think it’s important, man. Communication is a lost art. It’s unbelievable. So I think that’s the point of that story is, man, it’s important to tell people exactly where you stand and what you think and what you can improve on, what you’re doing well, all those things.”

The football version of that, Campbell said, is for coaches to be transparent in everything they do with players, other coaches and the front office.

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That means telling a player why he has lost his spot on the depth chart, not just having him show up and learn he has been demoted to second-string. That means being blunt when it comes to player evaluations and team needs with the people who pick the talent. That means not skirting around issues with other coaches.

And most importantly, making time to do those things consistently and with everyone in the program, something Campbell said he intends to do with the Lions.

“These coaches, as good as these guys are and how much I believe in them, they’ll know exactly where I stand with them,” Campbell said. “If I’ve got a problem with one of them, the way he’s coaching or what he’s doing, they’re going to know it from me. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to come after him in a negative light or I’m screaming or I’m yelling, but I’ll be like, ‘Hey, your drills, they’re crusty. They’re too old. Your guys are just stuck in stone. Where’s the creativity? Why are your players making these mistakes over and over? So who is that, is that the player or is it you?’

“So, listen, I don’t care who it is, I believe in those things, because you always respect it and I want somebody telling me the truth. If I got mustard on my face, tell me I’ve got mustard on my face, for God sakes.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.


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