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Can't Change? Or Won't?

Last night right at 11:30, Scipio Tex at Barking Carnival and I threw up posts on our respective sites. As it turned out, there was a good bit of overlap to portions of our posts. Scipio, arguing that the oft-heard "Mack Brown is a good CEO" line is a gross mischaracterization, had this to say:

The average Joe thinks of a CEO as a glib promoter with solid organizational skills, good outreach, and quick spin. Nice skills to have, but ancillary to the work of real management. The primary obligations of senior management are to enforce a vitality curve, create efficiencies, develop others, call out and address poor performance, mobilize the disparate to a common goal, and work diligently, if not ruthlessly, to increase the dynamism of the total organization.

Mack does one of those things well (bringing different camps together) and the rest horridly. He ricochets between micromanagement and absentee delegation (The classic Hersey S1/S4 managerial swing), hires within a narrow comfort zone of yes-men, can’t bear to make the tough call, indulges nepotism in himself and his staff, has skin as thin as onion paper, evidences shoddy results in grooming others, stifles staff dissent and necessary creative tension, and values tenure over talent.

These aren’t the hallmarks of an effective senior manager. Unless you’re a Ken Lay devotee.

(I encourage you to read the entire post, which is excellent.)

Meanwhile, I was posting about the apparent comfort level Mack Brown's slipped into, and why it might not be serving him well:

As a fan who generally supports Mack Brown and is grateful for what he's done at Texas, I do think we've reached a point where he's surrounded by too much that is comfortable.

I think most of us can look at our line of work and think about a time when plowing forward with "what we know" is no longer sufficient to keep us at the top of the game. Whether that's learning the ins and outs of new media marketing, or figuring out how to increase your direct sales to customers, or adjusting the branding of your product to an evolving marketplace, the lesson in every business is the same: you have to stay out at the forefront of the curve if you want to remain ultra-competitive. More often than not, that means integrating new people and ideas to help you evolve from what it is you know best.

Mack Brown doesn't need to teach himself the Xs and Os of the newest, sexiest offensive or defensive schemes. But there comes a time when being surrounded by that which you're comfortable with no longer serves you well. Mack can choose to ride that comfortable horse into the sunset, or he can choose to invigorate his staff with some hungry young talent who will help challenge the way he coaches football for the remainder of his career.

Where our posts diverge is in the final framing of the big issue: where I suggest Mack Brown may well be capable of making adjustments that help cure much of which ails him, Scipio's conclusion suggests that such a transformation is not within Mack's capabilities at all.

Like all great salespeople, Mack Brown’s first and most necessary sale is to himself. Like most marketers, his vision far exceeds his technical and managerial acumen. When his ambitions are thwarted, and absent the gift of ruthless self-appraisal, he looks externally - to the fans, to football mysticism and cliche, to specious and deceiving benchmarks that suggest that he’s not really failing at all. Good organizations are about solid systems, not personality cults. Being bombarded with the notion that Mack is a tremendous CEO doesn’t make it so.

Talking about all this meta stuff can get tiresome very quickly, but if ever there were a time for it, surely it's now, at the close of a disappointing season that reflected glaring systemic weaknesses. And I think there's a very real divide among Texas fans about those systemic problems: some believe they're not only a reflection of Mack Brown's weaknesses, but that the chatter about systemic change is in large part a waste of time. That is, Mack isn't capable of making the requisite changes.

The other segment of the fanbase remains hopeful that meaningful change is within Mack Brown's grasp. I'd guess that the motivations for this optimism are myriad (ranging from his national title, to his sincerity as a man, all the way to needing a coping mechanism for one's sports fandom), but the fact remains that there are a lot of us who don't want to believe that Texas football is confined to good-not-great for the rest of Mack's tenure.

Can we say that there's a right or wrong way to look at this? I'd argue that it's a little too soon to pen in ink the story of Mack's final seasons at Texas, but I think almost everyone agrees - on both sides - that Mack's track record lends itself to skeptical viewing. Though his accomplishments are many, the systemic weaknesses we've all been talking about have more or less come to define his reputation.

For now, we're each left to choose what we want to believe about the future at Texas under Mack Brown. Me? I think the Hallmark Card in me wants to believe that this year's struggles might lead Mack Brown to make the sort of evaluation - self and otherwise - with which he's heretofore been uncomfortable. Is that naive? I dunno; I'm not exactly counting on it, and you won't find me among the suprised if Texas football has plateaued. I know as well as anyone that people rarely change at the fundamental level - generally, we are who we are.

And yet, it does happen. I recently finished editing a book of interviews from a Washington D.C.-based radio program and I'll never forget listening to and editing the interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. By the end of the interview he was crying softly as he talked about the lessons he'd learned since the Vietnam War. The one thing that stood out above all else in that interview was that, with age and experience, McNamara had fundamentally changed. More than that, there had come a distinct moment in time where he made a conscious decision that doing so was necessary.

His legacy and Mack Brown's are two completely different beasts, but like the heart attack victim who decides to eat well and exercise, the convict who renounces violence and finds religion, or the workaholic father who finally decides to prioritize his family, there do exist transformational moments in a man's life and career that can profoundly affect how he conducts his business.

Is the disappointment of this season the kind of low point that might prompt Mack Brown to make a similar self-evaluation? Maybe, maybe not, but hey - sometimes life delivers a Hallmark ending.

Keep hope alive!