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What Would You Do? Leadership Lessons with Desmond Howard

Desmond Howard arrived at the University of Michigan as a highly-recruited running back. His first week there, famed Coach Bo Schembechler pulled Howard aside and said the team needed him at wide receiver. Did the star player balk or threaten to transfer? What would you do in that situation?

“I said, ‘Coach, if that’s the way you think I can help the team faster and more effectively, I’ll be in the wide receiver’s meeting room tomorrow,’” Howard recalled. “Someone told me, ‘Self-defeating attitudes create self-defeating behaviors.’ Heeding those words paid dividends throughout my college career.”

Howard, who became only the fourth player to win both college football’s Heisman trophy and NFL Super Bowl MVP, offered insights to a sold-out crowd about what led to his success in football and later in his career as an ESPN college football analyst at the Center for Leadership’s latest Leadership Lecture. The Lectures are presented by the Center for Leadership at Florida International University and in partnership with Amerant Bank to help those in the community leverage leadership advice from individuals as successful as Howard.

The Mentors

Thinking back to his arrival at Michigan in 1989, Howard remembered he quickly discovered the three attributes that made Coach Schembechler one of the leaders who would guide his success: communication, conviction, and extraction.

First, great leaders can effectively communicate. With “tough love” that could tame even a tough linebacker, coach Schembechler commanded – “not demanded,” Howard said – respect and effectively shared his game plan with those around him.

Schembechler’s leadership was powered by “relentless conviction.” He was unwavering in that “nobody was bigger than the program,” and everyone – from the team manager who shared Howard’s dorm room to the star quarterback on the field – was equal.  “Although Coach was really tough on us, we knew where it was coming from. He loved us,” Howard recalled. “He would chew you out in front of the team, but then put his hand on your shoulder, and explain to you exactly why. When that type of discipline is coming from a place of love, then you understand the person’s conviction.”

Finally, effective coaches and leaders can “extract” the potential in others. Howard’s skills as a star tailback in high school weren’t what was most needed on a team that had to replace several graduating receivers. The coaches saw Howard filling that new role. The decision to heed the coaches opened the door to Howard’s fabled college career – including his role in “the catch” against rival Notre Dame, which cemented his Heisman Trophy win in 1991.

“This is a person who sees something in you before you even know it exists,” he said about Schembechler. “But because someone like Coach can communicate their conviction,

you allow them the opportunity to pull that unanticipated talent out of you. Then you have to get to work; do what you have to do and do it well enough that they have to play you.”

The lessons for leadership and for life resonated for the listeners.

The Challenge

For Howard, Coach Schembechler’s influence was built upon the strong foundation of another mentor who preceded him – Desmond’s father J.D. Howard. Calling his father onstage, bedecked in a University of Michigan cap and jacket, the son told of a challenge his father made him during his high school sophomore summer.

“He said, ‘Son, you give me this summer, don’t go hanging out, don’t go to parties, just work out and commit yourself, dedicate yourself. Do that for me, and I’ll buy you a car,’ ” Howard told a riveted audience as his father looked on.

Challenge met, the car would be only part of the reward of that summer’s hard work. That fall, Howard excelled on the field, earning the role as starting tailback after scoring five touchdowns in his first game. “I gave my dad that summer,” he recalled, “and it paid big dividends.”

“I had a tremendous skill set, but I still had to work hard at my craft,” said Howard, who in college returned each day to his apartment away from the football training rooms to continue his own strength and conditioning routine. “If you work your butt off, wherever the chips fall, you can deal with it.”

The Takeaway

FIU student Cameron Jones was sitting among the more than 600 attendees at the FIU Graham Center Ballroom Thursday morning. The senior, a special events manager with the FIU’s commencement office, came to hear what inspired the athlete who won the 1997 Super Bowl as an MVP as part of Jones’ beloved Green Bay Packers.

“He treats people equally and he had a strong foundation,” Jones said of Howard. “He worked hard, but also benefitted from having the right people around him. It takes both.”

As Desmond Howard patiently posed for pictures with each attendee who waited in line to meet him after the presentation. J.D. Howard looked on, beaming at his son’s success, thinking not just of his son, but now also of Desmond Jr., a rising lacrosse star at his Miami grade school.

Back inside the lecture hall, Desmond was thoughtful in his reflections; he felt honored to share his leadership journey with the community.

“My father taught me that there are people who will see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. I took that to heart.  My definition of leadership is about sharing wisdom, communication, and conviction to get the best out of everyone,” he said. “Anytime you can share something inspirational with young people, it's a wonderful feeling inside. It's so gratifying to be able to do that." 


About the writer

Jeff Zbar
South Florida native Jeff Zbar has enjoyed a 30-plus year freelance career as a journalist, editor, author, and marketing copywriter. His portfolio of print and digital work appears in media outlets and for corporate clients across all areas of business and industry.