Daron K. Roberts is originally from East Texas. As a student at The University of Texas at Austin he earned degrees in Plan II Honors and government and served as student government president. He teaches about the intersection of leadership, sports and business, and was recognized as one of the Harvard Kennedy School’s 75 Most Fascinating Alumni.
For most of us, the workday begins with a familiar sound — our chosen alarm ringtone. For Daron K. Roberts that dreaded alarm sound is absent. In the six years that Roberts coached for the Kansas City Chiefs and in the NCAA, he always set it, but he never needed it.
Robert is the founding director of the UT Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation, the first university institute dedicated to developing leadership and character curricula for high school and collegiate athletes. A teacher, consultant, Forbes columnist and father, Roberts says he sees his life as a narrative of tough transitions: from Mount Pleasant, Texas, to UT Austin, to the U.S. Senate, to Harvard Law School, and then to the NFL. “I believe successful and rewarding transition involves risk,” he says. “That’s my specialty. I am a risk-taker and I want to help others take calculated risks.”
I first met Roberts when I enrolled in his course Disruptive Innovation in Sports. We studied Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: Why Good Firms Fail, which discusses how organizations get locked in to ‘what they do,’ instead of learning and creating new capabilities. Roberts knows this lesson firsthand. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he had multiple offers from corporate law firms, all of which would have ensured a lucrative salary. Instead, he chose “purpose over position,” a phrase he has coined to describe his professional philosophy.
Since the day I entered his classroom, Roberts has been a source of advice, wisdom and motivation. The following are some of the lessons that I will carry with me beyond the Forty Acres.
Lesson #1: Shape the Game That You Play
Roberts sees students as either trailblazers or torchbearers. He defines trailblazers as those who want to follow their passion to accomplish something new. Torchbearers are motivated to uphold noble traditions, for example those in medical school who come from a family serving the public as doctors.
Roberts says he is alarmed by the risk aversion of Americans and he seeks to cultivate people’s tolerance for risk in both their personal and professional lives. He says he observes that both students and post-education individuals tend to pigeonhole themselves in a specific track, even if it is not what they really want, because they are too afraid to do otherwise.
Speaking to a group of students at a leadership conference, Roberts told them “Shape the game that you play. Don’t play the game that you find.” He says it is easy to conform to what people expect or want from you, and it is challenging to change. In order to be a trailblazer, you need to “grow a comfort level with discomfort.”
In order to train his students to take calculated risks, an assignment is to perform an action that someone can say no to; albeit asking for a free Frappuccino or to shoot baskets in the Frank Erwin Center, every student must make ‘the ask’ developing an ability to go outside of their comfort zones.
He has applied the same challenge to himself. On the first of every year, he draws up a plan that includes sections for family, university work, personal goals and professional writing. For example, last year he decided to challenge himself to use social media as a means of spreading his message. Every Sunday he schedules a week’s worth of content. In a weekly series called “The Donut Council,” he posts pictures of himself and his four children eating at different donut shops and holding conversations.
Lesson #2: Opportunities are the Byproduct of Grace and Grit
Roberts’ story is such an interesting mix of good timing and hard work that it was the subject of a Sports Illustrated short film. Roberts graduated from Harvard Law School and, instead of following his peers’ example and accepting an offer from a large corporate law firm, he spent months writing 164 letters to every NFL and large NCAA university, introducing himself and asking to intern at their spring football training camp. His letters read, “I know you are getting hundreds of applicants, but I promise I will work harder than anyone else applying for this position.”
Roberts uses his narrative as a way to empower and inspire others, and to connect to academics and young football players alike. He says he believes that the best way to build momentum and create a movement is through a good story.
“I know that I have been blessed, and that opportunities are the byproduct of grace and grit,” Roberts says. “I am not risk-averse to failing… 31 NFL teams turned me down.” Roberts was fired twice in the NFL prior to hitting the trajectory for success that he is on, and credits his accomplishments to faith and hard work.
Roberts remembers his crucible moment as the day, in middle school, when he missed the “Gifted and Talented” academic cut-off by one point. He says he has a strong memory of coming home dejected, whereupon his mother held his head in her hands and told him that he was the smartest man on earth. Later, as a student at an exceptionally large high school, he learned how to effectively navigate among so many people. When he attended UT Austin and was elected student body president, it was the largest university in the nation. This experience emboldened him to account for others’ needs and expanded his receptivity to others’ perspectives.
He appreciates success, which he defines on a case-by-case basis, but his life is focused around his family and being fulfilled by a day’s work. He is quick to discuss how he could improve, and once said to me, “Having balance is a fallacy; you should always struggle.”
Lesson #3: Care
Every week in Roberts’ class a different student briefed the class on news from the world of sports. One day, the brief featured Dean Smith, the most winning basketball coach in history, who had just passed away. Rather than focusing on his athletic record, Roberts oriented the conversation around Smith’s basketball players’ 96 percent graduation rate, and his important work in integrating the game of basketball. Not only was Smith an effective basketball coach, Roberts said, he truly cared for his players. This duality made him an incredible leader.
Teaching is ultimately one of Roberts’ biggest passions — he tends to spend three-hours preparing for every lecture. Three times a year, Roberts teaches a course for 150 freshman college athletes titled A Game Plan for Winning at Life. The course includes lessons on personal finance, human intelligence, career development, personal branding, moral aptitude and leadership development.
Lesson #4: Listen First
I experienced his passion for social change firsthand during a very memorable class day. A few days prior, a group of fraternity members in Oklahoma were caught on video chanting racist slurs on a bus on their way to a fraternity event. Though racial issues were not listed on the syllabus, we spent the entire class discussing race relations in the U.S. I was inspired by Roberts’ ability, even as the only black person in the class, to conduct the class impartially and hold the utmost respect for every student, no matter their tone or comment.
Roberts says people should always learn first and speak only after they have gathered information. He demonstrated his ability to listen first throughout that class. “I think I should be speaking about 20 percent of the class, you don’t learn as much from the teacher as you do from your fellow students,” Roberts explained, a lesson he learned from a fellow UT faculty member Bob Duke.
When he finally did speak on the Oklahoma issue, he asked, “What do you think caused the boys to do this?” This open-ended question sparked an honest conversation about nature versus nurture, free speech, public discourse, “intolerance flipped” and blaming “the system.” “Give me the best argument against this,” Roberts would respond to students’ arguments, forcing everyone to play devil’s advocate.
In trying to create a Greek Dialectic, Roberts likes to serve as a fire-starter, saying, “I want to poke people enough so that they develop an opinion.” When I asked him about it afterwards, he said, “If 20 years from now, you only remember that incident, I did something right. These episodes [of hate crimes] will shift from race, to religion, to class, to sex, but [the students] can use the experience we had in class as reference.
“I do believe that later in my life I have learned that vulnerability and empathy are starting points, ” Roberts says. “In order for me to connect as a leader, I need to empathize. If you can see what someone’s position is, and try to understand it, you will be able to have a more constructive relationship.”
Roberts proves that a life of leadership is one in which goals are pursued, connections are formed, and risks are taken. A life of leadership involves taking on roles that challenge you and rising to the occasion. The lessons you learn should be shared with others, whether in a formal classroom or on Facebook. Like Roberts, a leader needs to extract value by taking delight in each moment, in waking up filled with excitement for the work ahead. I recently asked Roberts, “Now that you are no longer coaching football, do you still wake up before your alarm clock goes off?” He responded as if the answer was obvious, “Yes, indeed!”
If you are interested in learning more about Daron Roberts’ journey, visit his website to read his blog and follow his activities. Roberts’ book, Call an Audible: Let My Pivot from Harvard Law to NFL Coach Inspire Your Transition, will be available on Amazon in January 2017.
About the author: Elan Kogutt is a Humanities Honors ’16 alumnus, ‘15 Archer Fellow, Summer’15 Texas 4000 for Cancer rider, and Inaugural Summer ’14 Wise Wanderer scholarship recipient to volunteer in Ethiopia. Originally from Dallas, he works as a management consultant for Accenture in New York City.
Photo by Graham Kunze