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X & Y Management

A column in Monday's Wall Street Journal struck one of my pet peeves. Carol Hymowitz uses Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith as her main exhibits in "Two Football Coaches Have a Lot to Teach Screaming Managers" (subscription required).

The two men -- the first African-Americans to lead Super Bowl teams -- became close friends when Mr. Dungy, formerly head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hired Mr. Smith as an assistant. Both believe they can get their teams to compete more fiercely and score more touchdowns by giving directives calmly and treating players with respect. This doesn't mean they aren't demanding or don't push hard. Mr. Dungy has a grading system that counts players' "loafs." If someone isn't running at full speed, or eases up or fails to hit an opponent when he could have, those are loafs, and it's hard to get through a game without getting at least one.

While Ms. Hymowitz makes application to "screaming-bully bosses" common in the West Coast tech companies, no profession embraces this kind of managing-by-verbal-abuse more mainstream than in athletic coaching. The interesting thing about it is how resilient the style has been in spite of wildly successful, even legendary coaches who eschewed it such as Wooden, Landry, or Walsh. In fact, if you're anything short of successful over the long haul, then lack of vocal intensity typically receives part of the blame. Dungy notes how he was passed over for a head coaching job because he was too laidback, too polite, and willing to say that his family and faith really did take precedence over coaching.

Why does something unimportant or even detrimental to performance persist? Part of the answer may be a form of indulgence of manager's personality and preference -- shirking in econ-speak. It may also be due, in part, to the difficulty of determining what really makes a mentor successful. The vocal antics of Lombardi or Knight are very visible, so it becomes easy to attribute success to such a visible trait. Finally, habit and peer effects may enter in. The coaching profession really is a lot like a fraternity. I whack your butt because somebody whacked mine. For example, WKU's current coach was a hard-working, intense but courteous, polite, and humble player. After apprenticeships under the likes of Tom Crean, he returned as a foul-mouthed, berating screamer.

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