Leadership the Lubick way

Sonny Lubick smiling
Former CSU Football coach Sonny Lubick speak to students during a panel discussion at Business Day.

Twenty business students, a management professor, and a former football coach sit together at tables arranged in a big square. The group will meet four times this semester, and this is the second meeting. The topic: leadership. The life lessons: so many.

After everyone is settled, the professor asks: “Who is your hero or she-ro? It can’t be a family member.” Then he asks the group to break off in smaller groups to discuss the question. He challenges the students to find common traits among their s/heroes.

The room turns to pure energy as the students tackle the question. After about 10 minutes, the professor brings everyone back together. The man in the bright green sweater still is talking. He’s smiling and telling stories. He’s the coach at the table. And he’s Sonny Lubick, Colorado State University’s famous football coach who is credited for changing the football program, producing winning players and seasons, and influencing countless lives during his 15 seasons as head coach.

Leadership seminar students
Sonny Lubick leadership seminar students stand together for a portrait with the former CSU football and professor Bill Shuster outside the College of Business.

But today, Lubick’s a different kind of coach. Not just because he’s transitioned to a new career and in a room of business students, but because his perspective has changed. These days, he’s reflective and he spends his time sharing with students what he’s learned about life and leadership (and, really, some might say, with anyone who’s lucky enough to listen.) He’s been co-leading this particular leadership seminar with management professor Bill Shuster for four semesters now. The pairing is especially meaningful because Lubick and Shuster go way back – Coach Lubick was an assistant coach at CSU when Shuster was on the team many seasons ago and what happened after that is a story of mentorship and friendship that has lasted decades.

Lubick’s still talking. “I’m a rambler,” he says and smiles. Shuster agrees. Students begin sharing their s/heroes and why they chose them. Teachers, sports figures, family friends, and pop stars are mentioned – it’s a challenge when it can’t be a family member. Why are they s/heroes? Because they challenge us, they are compassionate, and they “strike the balance between confidence and humility” as one student eloquently states.

A balance of confidence, humility

Lubick’s been trying to get in touch with some former players lately. He’d like to apologize. See, he’s still growing. He’s learning from life and students and his perspective is shifting. He wonders if maybe he was too hard on them, or maybe he didn’t give them the second chance they deserved. He’s thinking about those things as he grows as a leader.

“I always thought for a long time that heroes were head coaches,” he says to the students who can’t take their attention away from the storied man who hangs out with celebrities and has been on magazine covers. “But now? Now I look around and I understand that the heroes are all of you.”
The conversation is intense and intimate. A few students throw out personal “challenges” to their peers to be aware and to consciously move toward being better leaders, better people, because someone’s always looking for an example.

“This leadership seminar is a way that I can express my hopes, dreams, and beliefs that I couldn’t normally express,” says Michael Wells, a sophomore studying finance and computer information systems. “The only thing I hope to gain out of this is new perspectives on life. Many times I find myself lost in the whirlwind of life that I forget what may be important, and this always reminds me what’s really important.”

There’s a hero

Shuster poses another question: “So what if that s/hero were you? And why not? And why not today?”

The students look around at each other. They look to Lubick. They look to Shuster. Yeah, it is a room full of leaders and heroes.

“It’s awesome that Sonny Lubick is still so involved with Colorado State University,” says Madeline Trotter, a senior studying marketing and management and set to graduate in May. “Hearing about his life experiences as a leader is very humbling. He has a very infectious and beautiful view of life. I can only hope to be even a fraction of the person he is.”

Rachel Hartman, a double major in business and apparel design, is thinking a lot about her leadership potential since being nominated as a seminar participant. “I have learned that being a leader means humbling yourself to better serve others – or as I would say, the constant effort to ‘love on people’,” she says. “These actions break down people’s walls and inspire. Making people feel this way can have infectious results – a rippling effect that reaches more and more people. The more infectious the results, the more influential the leader. The leader’s intention does not begin with seeking influence, but rather with serving. And the results are incredible. I know that someone in the College of Business considered me a leader and with that responsibility, I am making more of an effort to be a better civil servant to my peers at Colorado State University.”

At 75 years young and having spent a lot of years coaching and inspiring college students, why is Lubick still “coaching” students through his leadership seminars?

“It’s open and it’s honest. It’s humbling and an honor,” he says. “It makes my day … my week. It’s the highlight of my semester. The more we get to know each other, the freer we are to express ourselves. This isn’t required, they don’t have to come. But they do.”

This seminar is an example of the kind of learning that can happen beyond the classroom, and the students involved know they’ll take away valuable lessons.

“I believe we take pieces of everyone that we meet, no matter where we go or come from, and I’m excited to learn from Sonny, Bill and my peers,” says Trotter. “The seminar has got me thinking a lot more about my impact on individuals I encounter. The ‘giving’ concept we’re discussing is something I’m trying to adopt in my life. I’ve always tried to be a kind person, and after reading The Go-Giver, I’ve become more aware of when I can be more kind – or give – and when I can help someone. Since the first seminar, I’ve definitely become more conscious of my actions and words. I hope to make only positive impacts.”

Talking about leadership

Sonny Lubick’s Leadership Seminar features four interactive sessions each semester. College of Business professors and former seminar students nominate 20 business students for each seminar experience. Students represent all business concentrations and years. Management Professor Bill Shuster and Sonny Lubick, CSU’s former head football coach, lead the hour-long discussions inspired by the book The Go-Giver, by Bob Burg and John David Mann. Students participate in open discussion, apply what they learn to their current lives and think about how it might apply looking forward in work and life, and hear real-life leadership lessons from Lubick and Shuster. Through generous donations from HP and Target, a copy of the book is given to every student. If you have questions about the seminar, please email bill.shuster@colostate.edu.