Josh U Bacon
Make it Hard

Don’t be afraid to give control as a leader. The most successful teams work hard, have compassion, and understand how to transfer leadership between teammates.

Josh U Bacon
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Show Notes

Renowned sport’s journalist John U Bacon (@JohnUBacon) has a passion for leadership and teams. He won the Award of the Night Wallace Fellowship for journalism from the University of Michigan. And most interesting, he took the worst high school hockey team as a coach from the worst to one of the best in the country in four years. He is the author of 11 books, seven of which are national bestsellers. His most recent book is a New York Times Best Seller; Let Them Lead: Unexpected Lessons in Leadership From America’s Worst High School Hockey Team, shares insights on leadership and the power of making things hard. 

John U. Bacon (@John U Bacon) career as a leader and teacher spans three decades. He has won awards for being an inspiring writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor. Bacon has taught at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and teaches at the University of Michigan. Although he is a mediocre hockey player his excitement and knowledge of sports has made national history.

You are very impatient with behaviors and very patient with results. If your attitude is good, and you’re doing all things I’m telling you to do and our processes are correct. If you follow those, you will get there and worry less about the results and more about the process. ” 

John U. Bacon

Key Takeaways:

  • High Bar: Keeping a high bar allows people to rise to the challenge. People prove over and over again that when things are hard and challenging it inspires them to want to do better and become more comfortable with failure. When the bar is held high it teaches people they are more capable and can exceed their own expectations.
  • Team Leadership: Strong and successful teams let go of the hierarchical models. The ones in “control” or “command” know when to defer to those in lower ranks when the mission calls for it. Strong leadership is understanding that everyone can lead and needs to lead within their strengths as it is called for.
  • Effort is Important: Technique and skills can be taught. If you want to learn how to be more aggressive and successful in business and fall on the shy or introverted spectrum, let go of fear of failure. All good leaders understand that the quality of hard work and effort is more important than someone knowing how to do something correctly. 
  • Mentorship Over Money: Having strong mentorship, especially when you are young is more important than making money. The money will come eventually if you have the right attitude, develop your skills, and stay humble.

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Let Them Lead The Book

Mark Divine  0:00  

This is Mark Divine and this is The Mark Divine Show. Thanks for joining me today. On this show I explore what it means to be fearless through the lens of the most inspirational, compassionate and resilient leaders in the world. My guests include folks from all walks of life, Stoic philosophers, motivational scientists, peace crusaders, and amazing journalists and coaches like, my guest today, John U Bacon. John Bacon’s a renowned sports journalist, also radio personality. He’s won Award of the Night Wallace Fellowship for journalism from the University of Michigan. And most interesting he took the worst high school hockey team as a coach from the worst to one of the best in the country in four years, which we’re going to talk about today, we’re talking about his book, Let Them Lead. He’s also the author of a number of other bestsellers, The Best of Bacon Select Cuts, Playing Hurt: My Journey From Despair to Hope, and Endzone: The Rise Fall and Return of Michigan Football. John, thanks so much for joining me today. 

Mark Divine  0:00  

This is Mark Divine and this is The Mark Divine Show. Thanks for joining me today. On this show I explore what it means to be fearless through the lens of the most inspirational, compassionate and resilient leaders in the world. My guests include folks from all walks of life, Stoic philosophers, motivational scientists, peace crusaders, and amazing journalists and coaches like, my guest today, John U Bacon. John Bacon’s a renowned sports journalist, also radio personality. He’s won Award of the Night Wallace Fellowship for journalism from the University of Michigan. And most interesting he took the worst high school hockey team as a coach from the worst to one of the best in the country in four years, which we’re going to talk about today, we’re talking about his book, Let Them Lead. He’s also the author of a number of other bestsellers, The Best of Bacon Select Cuts, Playing Hurt: My Journey From Despair to Hope, and Endzone: The Rise Fall and Return of Michigan Football. John, thanks so much for joining me today. 

Mark Divine 1:01

John Bacon, thanks so much for joining me on The Mark Divine Show. Super stoked to have you. I was just telling you, man, I was loving your TEDx speech, you’re talking about your high school hockey coaching experience and your mentor saying you got to make them the Navy,  now to turn it around from worst to best, or at least respectable, you got to make it the hardest thing ever, you got to make it, you know, worthwhile. And I love the quote you said, make it special by making it hard. That brought me back to my Navy SEAL. Why why I wanted to be a Navy SEAL was because it was the baddest, hardest, most ridiculous thing to do in the world. And I wanted the piece of that. 

John Bacon  1:32  

I’m should have talked to you about 10 years ago, Mark, because that’s exactly was the mindset. What we’re doing these days, increasingly, the biggest problem I encountered my corporate speaking is labor, how to hire people, find them, recruit them, develop them, retain them, etc. And I think we’re going about it exactly wrong. We’re lowering the bar, we’re coming up with, you know, casual Fridays and Taco Tuesdays and all that and the bad news Mark is that stuff works great. And attracts everybody who loves Taco Tuesdays and casual Fridays.

Mark Divine  2:02  

It’s our whole culture, right? So I wonder, you know, 2000 there was still pre iPhone, you know, the Internet was there but it wasn’t like ubiquitous like it is now and so, especially in Ann Arbor kids were, you know, you got to shovel snow. You know, a lot of kids are outside in the winter, you know, they’re still hard is still kind of understood. Fast forward to 2023, you know, hard is disdained, and I’m wondering like, what is this doing to us? Like, do you still see kids gravitating are young adults, professionals, willing to do hard? I mean even the SEAL team we’re having trouble recruiting people and it’s a real shock when guys get into SEAL teams like oh, wow, I didn’t know it’s gonna be this.


John Bacon  2:39  

Well, I don’t know what they heard. If so, they’re misinformed. But I don’t I don’t think by the Navy SEAL’s.


Mark Divine  2:46  

Dude I’m serious. Like we have I run a program called Kokoro. It’s a 50 hour like hell week sim. 


John Bacon 2:50



Mark Divine 2:51

And some of the most prolific quitters are Midwestern, I want to be a Navy SEAL guys, who are like, yeah, I’m just gonna go to this Kokoro and prove myself there. And then I’ll go to buds and they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. Now, this isn’t, you know, everybody, obviously, we have others who have been wanting to do it since 12 years old, and they’re training and working hard and studying. But it’s just fascinating to me.


John Bacon  3:13  

I think as a rule, we underestimate this current generation. I recall George W. Bush talking about the soft racism of low expectations and realize it’s an insult anybody, low expectations. So my mentor, they’re Al Clark at Culver Military Academy for the boys in Culver Academy for the girls started a hockey program in 1976. Outdoor rink with 12 guys never skated before autumn skates and 30. Other state champs they were state champs for eight straight years, until the state of Indiana said you guys can’t compete anymore. 


Mark Divine 3:45



John Bacon 3:46

See the B team they kept on winning, then they were disallowed also. So anyway, he retired in 2016 with 1017 wins the most of any high school coach in America. 25 NHL draft picks nine NHL players, six Olympians 


Mark Divine 4:00



John Bacon 4:00

And again, Indiana is not known for any of this. And this guy’s also the math department chairman, he’s not cutting corners. So it’s not a hockey factory in the usual sense. But his line is one, of course Mark you were immediately attracted to, and I was to it seemed crazy at first. But he said the first thing I got to do is to make it special to play for Huron. And as you know, I should back up a little bit. And over here on High School, my alma mater, home of the river rats, and I’m not making that up.


Mark Divine  4:26  

The river rats I love it. Another connection to the Navy SEALs by the way. 


John Bacon 4:30

Yeah, see there you go.


Mark Divine 4:32

That’s what they call them in Vietnam. At least the boat guys.


John Bacon  4:34  

Yeah. But they said that with respect we were not getting that. 


Mark Divine 4:38

Roger that.


John Bacon 4:40

We were zero in 22 and three and for you non sports fans out there, zero is where the wins go. So 22 losses three ties was the saving grace. On some website. We were ranked dead last in America. Even teams from California where you are ranked ahead of us and look, we’re not surfing out here, Mark. 


Mark Divine 4:55

Yeah, yeah.


John Bacon 4:55

We have snow, we have ice. This is what we do. 


Mark Divine 4:57

You see then your TEDx talk. You were ranked like, out of everyone in the country like 20 something 100, you were the last.


John Bacon  5:03  

1256 teams, we ranked 1256. And that’s kind of aggressive. Mark, we didn’t suck, we aspire to suck. 


Mark Divine 5:12

You’re on that team with your brother, you and your brother. 


John Bacon 5:14

I was on the previous team, yes, 20 years earlier. 


Mark Divine 5:17

Oh, I see.


John Bacon 5:18

With my brother, as you know, and worst player in school history makes it even better. That’s yours truly. And that’s not false modesty, I can prove this empirically. I’ve got the numbers to prove it the most games and here on uniform 86. I dressed for all the games playing all the games, back then only three grades 10,11,12 for high school and played in all the games and scored none of the goals zero. Mark I played forward.


Mark Divine 5:42  

It’s almost impossibl, right at least you get a lucky shot in. 


John Bacon  5:45  

Probably was impossible, I had a couple of pipes in a crossbar I remember those. Literally. 


Mark Divine 5:52

That’s awesome.


John Bacon 5:53

So, I uh, yes, it’s you know, it’s a brother, it’s a Family Award. My brother also shares it he was on the team,


Mark Divine 5:57

Hockey coach was not in your future back then. 


John Bacon 5:59

It didn’t look that way. So worst team in America, worst player in school history. So I seek Al Clark, my mentor, and that’s one great thing, it’s gonna be a Navy SEAL man, find someone’s gonna help you. It’s gonna be any kind of leader find who’s going to help you the leaders, I think you’re gonna fail. I can identify them pretty quickly these days are the ones who think that once you become the leader, you have to have all the answers, you know, gobble up all the power, take all the credit, that guy’s going down. And when he goes down, won’t be anyone there to catch him. You don’t get through this thing alone very often, whether it’s the jungles of Vietnam or Navy SEAL’s or anything else. So I got my help with Al Clark.


Mark Divine  6:32  

How did you know Al? Like how did that connection come about?


John Bacon  6:36  

Well, I was his assistant coach, when I was 23. My 22 My first job out of college, I had three job offers with my history major from the University of Michigan history, of course, being pre unemployment, as my friends called it so, I didn’t have a ton of options. I’ll just say that. But three options, and I picked the one that paid the least for the least amount of authority. And that was $9,000 to be a faculty intern at Culver academies. $9000 bucks, high four figures Mark, not too impressive, but that’s a history degree, but what I got out of it was Al Clark, and one of my big beliefs is for young people especially seek mentors over money. 


Mark Divine 7:14



John Bacon 7:14

You got a good mentor that will the money will take care of itself down the road. But don’t cut that one short. So I took $9000 bucks to coach for Al basically and teach history. And that was the right move, man, we’re still close to this day. He’s a great mentor to me. I’m just retired in 2016. But I seek him out. I said, you know I am the dog was chasing the car, and I caught the damn thing. But I lacked keys, a license and you know, opposable thumb. So what do I do here? He said, That’s when he gave the line. He said, the first thing to do is to make it special to play for Huron. And I made my crack. Well, you know, right of the worst in America, that’s pretty special. And he dismisses that wisely, and he said, No, the easiest way to make it special is to make it hard. The easiest way to make it special is to make it hard, now, to the average American. I think that sounds crazy and paradoxical, at best. But you think about it makes a lot of sense.

And one of the first examples I give is you guys, the Navy SEALs, I looked it up and got some backing on this. And you can probably back me on this. I think the median income for a Navy SEAL is around $54,000. 


Mark Divine 8:19

About right. 


John Bacon 8:20

And for that kind of money, you get the honor of getting shot at and in the desert in the coldest weather, the hottest weather, it is designed to be I think, America’s hardest job, maybe the hardest job in the world. 


Mark Divine 8:30

I agree. 


John Bacon 8:31

And for $54,000, you can make that, you know, teaching junior high school, there are easier ways to make 54k I’m sure of that, like all of them are pretty much easier than that. And yet they take 6%. Now we’ve talked off the record about they’re having some problems there too. But man, they can afford to be that picky. How can they afford to be that picky? And the answer is they’re not. They’re not selling the salary. They’re selling the mission. They’re not apologizing, denying that it’s hard. They’re bragging about us being hard, and that’s the crucial mental switch. And I told my guys when I sent out a letter to them I said, Congratulations, you’re trying out for the hardest work in high school hockey team in the state of Michigan. And we work right away. And we first workout was a week after school got out run the weight room and the track Monday, Wednesday, Friday, four months before the tryouts even begin.


Mark Divine 9:20

Is that right?


John Bacon 9:21

So I’m pretty sure we were that tough.


Mark Divine  9:23  

Where did you get your inspiration your knowledge to design the hardest training program in the country for high school hockey?


John Bacon  9:29  

I got the idea from Al and I had read about the Navy SEALs I’ve read about you. 


Mark Divine  9:33  

I mean the actual specific programming for how do you make that part? 


John Bacon  9:36  

Programming, that luckily, I had been a sports writer for about 10 years. I had been to the Red Wings practices man, these guys win Stanley Cups. I’ve seen their practices.


Mark Divine 9:44



John Bacon 9:45

Al Clark gave me a lot of good stuff. Re  in the Michigan hockey coach had also won a couple national titles. I’ve seen their workouts too. But also and not least, my only goal growing up was to make the Huron high school hockey team, and Mark you know it’s good thing I didn’t have any higher goals because that;s all I achieved. I did one smart thing for a 10th grader, I ran cross country, the fall of my junior my sophomore year, first year of high school, I hated cross country. And I did it for way I had no plans and pursuing cross country, I did it for one reason, I was already, you know, five foot four, about as big 100 pounds as in the be the smallest guy trying out out of 80 or 90 Guys, I knew I had to be in better shape and all of them, and I couldn’t out lift them and I couldn’t be stronger then them that fast. I could sure as hell out run them. And so in two or three months of cross country, you go from 24 minutes for three miles to 18 minutes on a golf course up and down. And I could skate forever. So that’s where I got the idea in my head. This is what we’re gonna do. And also because I didn’t control the talent, we are who you are. I mean, we’re 0-22 and 3, we’re not going to fight for a state title this year. I knew that. But damn it, we’re gonna outwork them all. And that was the one that we had in our control. So I focused on that and had very specific hockey style workouts, which you mentioned, that sort of got their attention that we even knew this stuff, let alone to do it. So that’s what we started out doing. And I fully expected, I fully expected to lose a third maybe a half of these guys. I didn’t lose one.


Mark Divine 11:11



John Bacon 11:12

Which shows you how hungry even the worst who in America is. And these guys aren’t Navy SEALs, man, or even the guys who apply for Navy SEAL. 


Mark Divine 11:18

You didn’t get any pushback from parents at all. Did you back then?


John Bacon 11:20

I didn’t, in part because that communicated a lot. I met them early and often. I had my open email, you know, phone number and all that. The workouts are open, they can come down and see him for themselves. We made sure we had water there thanks to a good trainer Rod Sorgi. Plenty of that. Today, you might get some pushback, I’m not sure. But back then we didn’t. But one of the players Scotty McConnell, Scooter McGee, he said, You know what, we are the worst team in America. And some guy comes down three days a week to work out with you and tells you you’re the hardest working team in America, the state of Michigan, certainly, he said, man, that’s the first good news we heard in two years. 

So that alone was a vote of confidence. Our mere presence here working this hard, was a vote of confidence. And that spread. And for those who say, ok that’s, you know, one group of 20 kids, whatever else. University of Michigan, when I started teaching there in 05’. That was a year after I quit coaching. I said right away first day of class, I say I spent 20 minutes. Here’s why you should not take my class. It’d be the hardest class you ever take. The reading is obscene for this many, for three credits. That’s not a fair deal. I’m telling you that now. You will show up. You’ll show up on time. If you’re ready to work. There’ll be no cell phones, no laptops, no hats. Because Bo Schembechler the old football coach was going to come talk to my class, and he will not talk to you with a hat on. And I knew that. So I said, there are a lot of good reasons to take not take my class. I’ve given you a bunch right there. And we gotta waitlist of about 170. 

So even college students who do not like getting up Friday mornings, things like this. And when tied to corporations, they all say, well, we can’t get them all like that. Exactly. You don’t want them all, as my trainer said, Rob Sorgi,  somebody has worked at McDonald’s, they’ll take anybody. I don’t want an organization that takes anyone I want the Navy SEALs. I don’t care how good we are yet. But dammit, attitudes gotta be there right now, or else, we have no chance whatsoever. So incredibly, they not only kept coming, not one player quit. These are voluntary workouts by state law. I cannot make you come. They start telling their friends about it. You know, their lacross buddies and their basketball friends and their football pals. And they got so curious about our hard workouts. They wanted to come down to see it for themselves. And they asked me can I bring my buddies and I said, I don’t know. I milked this one Mark for all to work. Because now we’re getting an attitude…

Mark Divine 13:35



John Bacon 13:35

…of confidence. And I said, I don’t know if they can come down or not. Because you guys been at this for two months now you brought your relay time from 15 minutes down to 12 minutes. That’s incredible. You guys have all like doubled your weightlifting, basically. And these guys are starting out. I mean, I don’t need these guys dying on my track because that will slow us down while we’re sprinting. Jumping over dead bodies. I was joking clearly. But some of their friends came down and they survived. But they’re all in the back of the pack. There’s no way that point my my guys gonna let them get anywhere near it. So just like that, and Al predicted this out said if they know just to make the team, they’ve got to do things that not everybody would be willing to do. The little encouragement, they will begin enforcing the culture themselves. And now you’ve got a culture. Look, the Navy SEALs don’t depend only on you the guy running the Navy SEALs, the Navy SEALs enforced their own stuff and a new guy will get corrected very quickly as I understand it in your culture. A one year guy, a two year guy, they can do it. And now you got a good thing going and I’ll shut up after this last one, I promise. But John Cooper was coaching the Lansing Catholic central team, and I was coaching in Ann Arbor and Lansing, the capital of Michigan. And he had a great line. He said bad teams, nobody leads. Good teams, leaders lead coaches lead. Great teams, everybody leads.


Mark Divine 14:54



John Bacon 14:55

John Cooper is now the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s won two Stanley Cups in a row, and he just got his third last year. So, I guess our career paths diverged somewhere there, Mark, because I’m free this fall. 


Mark Divine 15:07

That’s such a great story. 


John Bacon 15:08

The military is shockingly good at this. 


Mark Divine 15:10



John Bacon 15:11

Layers of leadership at all levels.


Mark Divine  15:13  

Yeah. But there’s a subtle difference between leadership leaders at all levels. And everybody leads. The SEALs do that last part really well, right. Everyone’s expect to be a leader and a follower. And to know when to step out of the way and let someone else lead. And that takes, it’s a real attitude, right? It’s not the structures not the rank is. It’s really about everyone, you know, rowing together to use a different metaphor, and putting the mission and their teammates before themselves


John Bacon  15:38  

Couldn’t have said it better. And market should have taught you a year ago and I would have quoted you in my book. I mean, look up Navy SEALs were you know, Podunk high school hockey team. But we had to have the same attitude, we had to have the same approach.


Mark Divine  15:51  

Now. What was the first season like this? Give us a sense for like how? 


John Bacon  15:55  

Sure, I can tell you before we got there, late August of our first summer by now we’re getting we gotta go in. It’s one of these crazy Ann Arbor days, Michigan days, it does happen rains, cats and dogs and sun comes out, and it’s so hot that the steam is coming off the track. And I said to the guys, I said, look down to the goalposts. Can you see him? Football, goalpost and air so wavy, you can’t make it out? So is it in quite the desert where you guys are working, but for us? Pretty damn hot. I said, That’s right. It’s the hottest hour of the hottest day of this year. And we’re lucky that it falls when we’re on the track narrows who would have missed out a chance to find out how tough we’ve gotten. I don’t see Trenton he honestly pioneer their home playing X Box and eating ho ho’s. I don’t have any idea if that’s true. I didn’t see him on my track. So anyway, and I said we’re not going to and this is the Navy SEAL attitude. We’re not going to whine about this, we’re not going to cry about this. We’re gonna brag about it. And Greg, every record we’ve got who’s with me? By then they’re all with me, except for newbie, some ninth grader, he grumbles something. And that’s when Mike Half and Mike Henry, who was a convert to all this, he turns to the kid and says, hey, you play for Huron and it’s harder over here. And I said yes, booyah, that goes on our wall. That’s exactly it, our standard is going to be higher. So if a Navy SEAL complaints, well, these guys don’t have to do that. That’s right. That’s why they’re not Navy SEALs. We are special for this reason. And therefore also, what am I focused on, I’m focused on behaviors over results. I can’t guarantee any victories this year, we I don’t know how far below zero we are. Right? But your attitude, your behavior, man that is entirely within your own control. And that also allows you to define yourself, and our team headed to find ourselves I know what the world thought of us, you know, the school, the rink, the League, the state, they all thought we sucked and you were losers. So I don’t care about that we define ourselves based on our attitude, and our behavior and our effort. And you give me those things we’ll get there. I’ll worry about the score. So that’s where we started. And we went our first three games of the season, which was a minor miracle. That total by the way, that equal the total for our two previous years combined. So right there is a pretty good week, then we’ve got to play all mighty Trenton they’ve won 14 state titles, one of the players, Andy Greene, from that team. I think he just retired with the New York Islanders. So he’s got a pretty good, a whole lot better than we are. And final score is 13 to t2. By the end of that game, Mark, I knew their fights on Saturday 13 times. So that was pretty discouraging. And the guys are throwing their gloves and their sticks and they’re swearing in the locker room, which I did allow actually.


Mark Divine 18:24

You’ve got to blow off steam when when things don’t go well that’s okay. 


John Bacon  18:27  

You know, you can’t squeeze the balloon in all directions at once.


Mark Divine 18:28

That’s right.


John Bacon 18:29

Or else it’s gonna pop. And they’re, you know, saying hey, we didn’t lose this badly last year. It was true. And by the way, 13 to 2, I’ll remind your viewers by the way, this is not high school football this is hockey. They come in increments of one. That’s a long evening. And I said, Hey, stop, eyeballs, go snap. So that for the Marines, I believe…um, eyeball snap, they all look up. And I said, Look, I saw the score, and I can’t spend it. When it’s got our butts handed to us on a silver platter by the best team in America. That’s what it was. And there’ll be shocked to know that you, you saw it too. And you told the truth. I said, but that’s not what matters to us. What matters to us are our two values. What are our two values? And they grumbled work hard and support your teammates. I  said no, no, no. You’ve been yelling back and forth all for all summer, worst weather. What is it? Work hard for your teammates! We start yelling back and forth. I said okay, based on our definition, our terms, how do we do tonight? They said, actually we did pretty well. You did damn well, you’re going hard to the very end of a 13 to 2, butt kicking and you guys didn’t let up. And you didn’t let up on supporting the goalie. No pointing fingers, our two goals, you all high five. They quit high five and after 10, they got bored. They didn’t do wha you did. They were slacking a little bit at the end and it’s on that okay, fine their head turned into but I would not be happy with that. And I’m happy with you. We define ourselves. What you did today by our terms was heroic. And that’s all that matters. You walk out of here with your head held high. We’re gonna get there. We’re getting there now. And next time we played 7 to 1, we had one one of the third period and we was already down six nothing but we there appeared is one to one, that’s progress. We finished with seven wins, which was the most improved team in school history by now we’ve got a story. That’s momentum. And now we start taking off.


Mark Divine  20:15  

How long did you coach there? And what was the ultimate record?


John Bacon  20:18  

Four years. Second year we’re 16, nine and two, which is the second best record in school has we broke the most improved record we set the year before. So that’s how bad we weren’t Mark, we could break the record two years in a row. As my dad said, when I took the job said, well, when you’re on the floor, you can’t fall out of bed, so thanks, dad. My dad is not a motivational speaker, let’s be clear. But he was right, third year, we’re 17, four and five. We’re number four in the state we’re number 53. In the nation, we had past 1203 teams in the country has 97%. No one said it before and no one’s done it after. And it’s almost impossible to you have to start dead last and only one team a year gets that chance. Crucially, I did not cut a single player from the 0- 22 and 3 team into being sophomores, juniors and seniors they played. And they’re a part of this thing as well. We had you know, some of the players came out for the team after a while once we get going. But these are the same guys. Nothing I’ve done has fulfilled me more than this.


Mark Divine  21:17  

What an extraordinary experience. For years. Why did you move on right at right at kind of just when you’re getting an engine cranked up?


John Bacon  21:24  

Good question. And by the way, our fourth, we finally beat Prenton  we finally beat 4th place. 


Mark Divine 21:29

Oh good job.


John Bacon 21:30

And it wasn’t a fluke, then we’re pretty good. So some of the guys had seen the zero to the 32 game. So they, so I changed there. But anyway, it was really  moneyand time. The job paid $5,000. During the winter, it paid nothing in the offseason, what you have to do to get this thing turned around, I had to cut off a phone interview with John Wooden. I’m a sports writer to make sure I got to the rink on time, you can’t be late. I’m talking to Jerry West in Memphis, I had to take an earlier flight to make sure I was home for a game. So after a while became increasingly difficult, and it cost me a ton of money as well. Further by the time I stepped down, we had things very well in place. We had $60,000 in the bank, we had new uniforms, new locker room, I had Dale Romanski, the former Michigan star take over the team for me, that’s we’re in quite good shape. And they’re doing well now. So..


Mark Divine  22:14  

Awesome. What a neat formative story. And so you went into journalism after that, and you’ve done a lot of work in that area, what were some of the more breakthrough ideas or insights that, you know, kind of came after that experience with the high school team?


Unknown Speaker  22:29  

I kind of figured out what I was doing after I did it.


Mark Divine  22:32  

That makes sense. It’s kind of like me writing my books about you know, what I learned in the SEALs and how it applies to business. You know, you don’t see it while you’re immersed in it, you have to kind of look back and..


John Bacon  22:40  

Exactly right. That’s what I’m lucky, I did not write the book until 15 years after I quit coaching. Plus, my guys now are 35 years old to 40 years old, and their leaders themselves usually. And there, it gave me some great stuff coming in. But I’d say they a couple of keys really stand out. One is, like I said, You are very impatient with behaviors and very patient with results. If your attitude is good, and you’re doing all things I’m telling you to do and our processes are correct. If you follow those, you will get there and worry less about the results and more about the process. It’s like trying to lose weight, which I’ve done three or four times in my Oprah esque weight fluctuations. So the scale is important. And I monitor that and so on. But look, some days you do everything right, and you gain two pounds. Others day you’re cutting corners, you’re cheating and somehow you lose a pound. Well, what do you focus on the scale or your behaviors, I mean, I’ve coached baseball, so you probably played some of yourself. The guy who’s a line shot the third base and the guy spears it, right, is hitting better than the guy who hit a blooper. Right, and got to first base. Award the swing more than the results. Focus on the swing, you control the swing, you don’t control that much where the ball goes, or not as much. So that’s one big thing I got out of this. One thing I got later on when I was assistant coach on the Michigan Women’s Hockey team, I realized this certainly applies to what we both do. I think there are women now in the Navy SEALs, correct.


Mark Divine  23:59  

Not yet, but they are open to them. And there’s some in the pipeline, you know, giving it a shot, it will be some year, eventually.


John Bacon  24:06  

I wish them all luck. I know they’re not going to cut any corners for anybody in that field. But but another you know, there should be at West Point now in Annapolis and Air Force Academy. But anyway, I coached women’s team for a while and I learned that women and men guess what are not the same. I don’t care what they say about socialization, and so on. Anybody who’s raised them knows this. And there are a million exceptions. I’m painting a broad brush here. 


Mark Divine 24:26



John Bacon 24:26

And of course we treat people with respect always no matter where they fall. The women by the way, they listen better. They always are eager to please the coaches. And of course the high school boys. I gotta yell three times.Before some of them realize, hey, there’s somebody here in this room trying to communicate with me now.

Yeah, it’s me.


Mark Divine 24:47

That’s funny.


John Bacon 24:48

But the women though were very they’re so team oriented. That’s great. They’re too team oriented. I needed somebody to stand up and be a star. I will joke is how many women does it take to shoot the puck? And the answers five, one to shoot the puck and four to say it’s okay to shoot the puck. 


Mark Divine 25:05



John Bacon 25:06

And that is not a problem with the boys, I’ll just tell you that. That guy’s wide open, and you’re not, and you’re shooting the puck while you’re doing this. So the, I realized after the fact, I was always trying to get the boys to play more like the girls, and the girls play more like the boys, and that’s not a bad leadership model. And I figured that out, 15 years later, when I was talking about Title Nine, to Carol Hutchins, the Michigan NCAA champion softball coach. That she needs to get her women to be tougher, be more aggressive, to be a little more selfish, to not worry about anyone’s feelings quite so much. And I need to get the boys to the opposite. All right, to lead with compassion, to pass the puck occasionally, I mean, the other joke is confidence. The women, I did not realize this until I was in it for a while. These are University Michigan students were a top 10 team, I assumed that confidence would take care of itself. And it did not. So I had to constantly pump them up individually. And as a team. And the boys, of course, the old joke, they’re young women, you’re you’re twice as good as you think you are the boys, you’re not half as good as you think you are. I love you, and I believe in you. But you’re let’s let’s not you ratchet this down a little bit here. And I mean, kid I was in my locker room, you know, the coaches versus coach, why am I playing on the third line? Because I like you. That’s why you’re playing the third line, you should be on the fourth line, don’t ask twice. So anybody in leadership should be aware of that. That’s something I learned after the fact though.


Mark Divine  26:27  

How does this translate into the corporate world? I’m gonna how do we get corporate male leaders to be more like female leaders? And vice versa? What’s the dialogue?


John Bacon  26:36  

Great question. And I think these days, we’re too scared to do two things that we certainly did full blast at Huron, and keep mine I mean, I made a million mistakes. And they’re in the book. There was no perfection here. Some hard days and some dumb mistakes. But anyway, first thing is we already talked about and that’s don’t lower the bar. Don’t be afraid to keep the bar high. You won’t get them all, but you get the ones you want. I mean, look, Harvard Law School, why, why are the applications through the roof, because it’s so hard to get into. Alright, they take four or 5%, Johns Hopkins Medical School, et cetera, whatever, it’s hard attracts the right people, Navy SEALs, attract the right people, I think. So, don’t be afraid to do that. And right now, people are terrified of not having of applicants because they’re going to do that, well, you get the wrong ones. So raise the bar high. The second thing, the ones who are willing to do that are often not willing to let go of control. They’re tough enough, they wanted to try the dictator way. Command and control and we even in the Navy SEALs that only gets you so far, I’ve been very impressed. The more I’ve learned about the military and been on USS Teddy Roosevelt’s and other things like that, how much they defer to people underneath them. And then I mean, even MacArthur said, don’t tell them how to get there. Tell them where they need to go. They’ll figure out better ways than you would that’s MacArthur. I mean, he’s he’s no softy, obviously. So on that one, the let them lead side of things. I mean, how do you learn how to drive a car, I drive you watch, you drive, I watch. What’s the third step, I have to give you the damn keys. And that my kids went seven. So I’m not there yet. But man, it’s gotta be scary. I’m gonna hop down the USS Teddy Roosevelt, one of the six I believe, biggest aircraft carriers around the Admiral said, you’re gonna get on at first and be so impressed by all the technology, how it all works, and all this stuff, you’re gonna leave being impressed by the 19 and 20 year olds will actually run a 3000 person ship. And that’s exactly right. If they can do that, then we can do that also. So don’t be afraid to give control. They’re going to screw up sometimes. Why is it scary? My kids learn how to ride a bike. Alright, I ride it, watch show him he rides it, I hold the seat. Third step. Ah, that ones hard, letting go the damn seat. And why is it hard? Because he’s not gonna do it, because he’s gonna a bike away and things would be great. No, he’s pound away. He’s gonna hit the picket fence or the tree or the street. He’s gonna cry, rub his knee and get up and do it again.


Mark Divine  28:56  

Are there any tactics that you’ve discovered that can help women be more aggressive, and self determinate and men be more compassionate in business?


John Bacon  29:05  

Great question, one I’ve never gotten by the way, Mark, that’s pretty good. So I’m thinking out loud here. I’d say the first thing to that for them to be more aggressive for women or anyone else who’s shy or reserved or introverted, raise their hand to let them know that look, I’m not judging you on goals and assists, alright, if you shoot the puck and shoot wide, I will not get mad. Alright, so let them know that the effort is what I’m looking for. And we’ll work on the technique over time. But if you’re not willing to try, I can’t, it’s not going to work. So let the bar be very low as far as the results go. Alright, we’ll get there just meeting where they are. As far as the the boys and being compassionate. What I found there is layers of leadership work great. And our joke and our team leading by example, if you don’t do that, they’re not going to follow you. They shouldn’t follow you. You’re hypocrite at that point. But that is not nearly enough. And we had a joke in our team. We’ve got a name for those who lead by example, they’re called sophomores. Because all that means is you can do your job. You can do your job. Congratulations, you get it. Jersey you gotta start with your name on it you got a place in my bus but that’s all you get. Alright your junior year know your job do your job no everyone else’s job to that’s where compassion starts. And your senior year know your job do your job, no everyone else’s job to help them do their jobs better. And one of my lines also was, look, it’s my program but seniors, it’s your team, you will determine how far we go this year you more than anyone else out here more than me. So when they know it’s their team, and they’ve been there before, I also stole an idea from the Japanese called senpai kohai. I was doing a story for ESPN magazine and Japanese hockey. Senpai Kohai means basically mentor and protege. And you guys do a great job of that in the military. We made it official. Here in hockey, every upperclassmen had a underclassmen sophomore or a freshman to pair up with team dinners, places in the bus few away games, share hotel room together and so on. To get to know younger guys in the team, we had to break down those barriers. It couldn’t just be I’m a senior screw you. I also, by the way, even how we sat in the locker room, I spent a lot of time modeling and out to make sure I got it right. Where I had no one in the same class sitting together. I had senior sitting next to freshmen, I had sophomores and juniors, I had my four compass points, my four best leaders sat in the four different walls of the locker room. I needed to spread that out because we have to get to know each other. We don’t know each other you not going to care about each other. So we had to break that down. 


Mark Divine 31:25

Senpai Kohai. 


John Bacon 31:27

Yep. Every Japanese company does this Toyota, Sony…


Mark Divine 31:30



John Bacon 31:31

Mitsubishi, you name it. They all do it this way. They take it too far, frankly. And a hockey team in Japan, the younger guy, the kohai will have to go into the corner, get the puck, while the senpai the older guy just waits in front of the net for the puck, you can’t do that. Hockey is a fast game, the guy close to the puck has got to get the damn puck.


Mark Divine  31:54  

Right. That’s a great principle though. I love that. What do you do when someone either has a bad attitude or suddenly, you know, loses the bubble and turns out to be the Negative Nelly, even if they got great skills?


John Bacon  32:05  

Don’t be blinded by skills. That’s the first big I mean, we know that from grade school, you know, teacher’s pet, basically and you know, every coach, you know sas a favorite at least  a lot of them do. And it’s utterly demoralizing. So don’t play favorites based on skill. That’s one thing. That’s how you develop a bad attitude in your people by letting skill blind you to their behaviors. Behaviors are all I judge, you can  work on skills, but I judge you on behaviors. That’s it. We control that . Any goalie can have a bad night I won’t get mad at you as long as you’re working hard. But as far as that goes the favorite stuff Al Clark man, my mentor at Culver Academies. The bus left at 10 o’clock in the morning no matter what if we’re on our way weekend, whatever else. We had an NHL draft pick Montreal Canadiens great defenseman, great guy. And he’s about two or three minutes late and and the bus is rolling away. And he’s banging on the side of the bus and we’re driving 10 hours to Buffalo for big tournament with NHL scouts, college scouts is a big deal. You don’t want to miss this trip. And we need him. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves is the best guy out there. And all the players are saying coach, coach, Tony’s banging on the outside of the bus and Al very taciturn, not like me, obviously. And he says and I quote and I’ll never forget, he goes, “Keyword outside, he’s on the wrong side of the bus.”


Mark Divine  33:19  

Wow, that sends a message.


John Bacon  33:20  

And we wanted him, and we left. And they won the tournament anyway, because everyone raised their game because they’re inspired by the fact that behaviors actually matter. You play favorites. You demotivate the favorite because now he thinks I can do whatever I want. And you’ll hold the bus for me. And he didn’t move everyone else. They know I can do anything right and you will not give me his job. So don’t play favorites. Just one thing you have to be careful of there as far as attitudes go, man constant communication. Man, I demanded insisted every day after practice. Three or four captains we had had to come in the coach’s room and talk to me about how it’s goning. Who’s in a good mood, who’s in a bad mood, who’s working hard, who isn’t? I want to hear it every day, every single day seniors at least once a week. And anybody at any time could come into my office except for practice time. All right, and talk about whatever. So communication is the big thing. When the attitudes bad, man you got to nip that in the bud, you get a fire when it’s small, a cup of water will do it. And if you let a crappy attitude, all right, start to grow man it’s a bonfire. Now everyone else is not playing enough or thinks the coach is out to get them, they start catching it. Now you gotta cancer, you can’t have that. So you got to nip it early. And often. If it costs you a game, it costs you a game. The cost your client cost you a client. If I was your top salesperson, I don’t care. All right, it has to be behaviors above performance, always. And once you have that, by the way, everyone’s performance raises, so nip it and be willing to be a jerk, but also if you nip it in the bud, hey, what’s going on? But let’s start at first base. What’s happening? I’m watching you, I’m seeing this, what am I missing? Is it a girlfriend? Is it school? Is it grandparents sick, what’s going on? And oftentimes I can tell you and when you’re compassionate that way you’ll get more out of them the next day. Also when they problem to you, you better stop and listen. That’s not like some distraction your job. That’s your job. And if I talk to you, then, alright, then you owe me three days later.


Mark Divine  35:09  

So at what point do you cut bait? And have you had to fire anyone?


John Bacon  35:13  

I did. Two best reasons to fire anybody disloyalty and dishonesty. Because at that point, I don’t know how I don’t know how I can work with you. And then in the other case, that was one one player. In and not based on ability, not based on ability at all. So disloyalty, dishonesty, I can’t work with you. Now, these are high school kids. I’ll give you a strike, but I’m getting three strikes. So that’s one thing, the next thing I mean, a guy we took a borderline player, I liked him very much. But he wasn’t that into it after all. I thought it’d be one of our Rudy’s I’d have one Rudy per team, if I could. And he just said, you know, I’m not sure if I’m, you know…I said, well, I have to make this easier for you. Because this is not for, it’s not halfway in halfway out. And I went to a wedding and one of his teammates, we became good friends again, 15 years later. So it’s all well, and he’s, he’s a very successful businessman. That’s the good news, but, but he had money cut bait and is based on attitude, once you think is not going to turn around, that’s when you got to do it. And oftentimes, that is what wakes them up. So that might be the lesson they need.


Mark Divine  36:11  

You know, the title of your book is Let Them Lead from yours, your perspective, as you said, you know, it’s my program, your team, but your your perspective as the guy who’s actually in charge and ultimately accountable. How do you humble yourself to step out of the way what you know, how do you check your ego at the door? What the strategies? Or what was the process for you to like, get out of the way to let them lead.


John Bacon  36:33  

The more I did it, the better we did, and a few humbling things already, A), A) my own playing record that speaks for itself. Two of the initial vote for coaches four to two for the other guy, so they didn’t want me there’s another thing to keep you humble. I surrounded myself with the best assistant coaching staff in the state. My goal is to be the dumbest guy in the coach’s room, and I greatly exceeded my expectations, I’ll say that. So when in doubt, hire somebody smarter than you don’t worry about that. But it also comes from from Herb Brooks, in 1980 Olympic coach who beat the Soviets, he and actually became pretty good friends. Herb Brooks was the last guy come from 1960 team, they won a gold medal in 1980. They won the gold medal. Of course he but 20 years for that dream. He sacrificed almost everything, a good chunk of his career, a lot of money, all this stuff back then it didn’t pay anything. And find me the picture of him celebrating this team are cheering and you can’t because it doesn’t exist. They win the game. What does Herb do? He walks underneath the stands when that celebration is going on. He goes to a public locker room and he cries by himself in a bathroom stall. 


Mark Divine 37:34



John Bacon 37:34

And I said, how the hell you sacrificed everything for 20 years, you had this dream for 20 years, and you finally got it. How the hell could you possibly walk out then? And he said I didn’t score a single goal in 1960, I didn’t score a single goal in 1980. All right, they made all the goals the shots that block shots, the hits, that’s their victory, not mine. And I thought to myself, well, holy hell, if this guy can walk away from arguably the greatest upset of all time in any sport, any era, I can sure as hell walk away from a Thanksgiving trophy that we get along the way. So when they say Coach Bacocn come get your trophy, put your hands in your pocket, you nod your cap and he goes goes, goes and gets his trophy. And I walk off. That’s the Herb Brooks lesson. The whole thing there was we told him this look on game nights. You guys wear skates, we wear shoes. Alright, it’s up to you. And we’ll give you all the help we can. But I mean, look when Colin Powell is in there in the in the bunker during trying to get Osama Bin Laden. They’re watching on cameras, and so on, it’s Navy SEAL Team Six, what can they do? And the answer is not a lot. So the SEALs are very good at giving the person on the ground the authority to make decisions on the spot you have to. So we did that a lot. And our fourth year, third year sorry, we had a 14 game winning streak. We lost a couple, what do you do, you put your team in charge, I let them coach the entire game the next night against the rank team. And I said you guys pick out the lineup the starting five during the game, you got to change live, alright, in hockey alright, and they got to handle all that themselves. And then as after the game, you’ve got to talk to the Ann Arbor News, hope you win. 


Mark Divine 39:04

That’s awesome.


John Bacon 39:05

Because that’s sucks when you lose, trust me, and they beat a very good team six to nothing. So that’s how you do it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.


Mark Divine  39:13  

Yeah, take responsibility to fuck ups and give credit for all the victories.


John Bacon  39:17  

I mean, all blame goes to you and all credit goes to them. It’s that simple. If you don’t like that don’t be a leader.


Mark Divine  39:22  

Exactly. And a lot of people shouldn’t actually be leaders. You know, they think that there’s some sort of badge of honor in it. But it’s actually hard work. And humility is the master skill, I think.


John Bacon  39:32  

And now we’re getting around to that that was the hidden skill for many years. But humility is the one and the humility that said, take the blame. We lose, I did something wrong. I’ll fix it. I have my job, but I did something wrong. If they win, it’s all them. Very simple. So yeah, humility is a shockingly effective weapon.


Mark Divine  39:48  

Anything that we kind of missed that would be really like an important kind of takeaway. Final thought from your experiences and the book?


John Bacon  39:55  

since then. And my speeches I in Vancouver about 10-12 years ago I said this I don’t know. don’t know why I did, but I’m glad I did. I asked my audience who was your favorite teacher? And it turns out, everybody in the world, I have asked us about 100 times since across North America in Mexico and South America and English, Espanol, and Portuguese, who is your favorite teacher, and everybody in the world, any country, any culture, any language can come up with that teacher in about five seconds? And I bet you can right now. Mark, who is your favorite teacher?


Mark Divine  40:24  

Well, it’s actually my swim coach. Mr. Dalton.


John Bacon 40:25

What’s his or her name? 


Mark Divine 40:27

Gosh, his first name is John Dalton.


John Bacon  40:28  

John Dalton. And was John Dalton easy?


Mark Divine  40:32  

No, no, he was not easy. 


John Bacon 40:33

Everyone says it like that. No.


Mark Divine 40:36

No, not easy, but he was fair, and kind.


John Bacon  40:38  

That’s when you really got it going. When it’s not me yelling and screaming and trying to enforce rules and so on, when I can give you a look. And that’s enough, because you don’t want to let me down and I don’t wanna let you down. Very simple. And look, everybody in the world comes up with this. You did, Marrk, I’m sorry, John Dalton like that. Very good. What they do, I care about you so much, that I’m not going to lower the bar. That’s what they do. It’s two things. I gotta care about you 100%. And I gotta push you 100%. And I can only push you as much as I care about you after otherwise, you tune me out. Everything else is details, Al Clark says 10 words a day. We have very different personalities. His pregame speech was, well this would be a good one to win.


Mark Divine  41:18  

Well, the work is already done. If you need the pregame speech…


John Bacon  41:20  

Your probably too late. The haze in the bone as they say, right. But there you go. All it is, what is leadership is your favorite teacher, be your favorite teacher. 


Mark Divine  41:28  

I love it. 


John Bacon 41:29

And you know what that feels like? 


Mark Divine 41:30

That’s awesome. John, thanks so much. The book is out in the marketplace. Let Them Lead. What about social media website, that kind of stuff?


John Bacon  41:38  

I’m on Twitter, John U Bacon, Facebook John U Bacon, LinkedIn John U Bacon, and also got a podcast @ Let Them Lead By Bacon.com. That’s Let Them Lead By Bacon.com. And Mark doesn’t know it yet. But he’s going to be on it.


Mark Divine  41:52  

I would be honored to be on that podcast. This is, this has been a great conversation. I love the work you’ve done. God, you got a, you just got a great attitude John. And I really appreciate you being here. So thank you very much.


John Bacon  42:03  

You’re very good. Thank you. This has been a treat. And I want to get more out of you next time. 


Mark Divine  42:07  

Yeah, Hooyah! We’ll see you soon. What a phenomenal interview. John U Bacon, and thanks so much for joining me, John. I love learning about Let Them Lead, how you can make it special by making it hard. Enjoyed learning about your mentor Al Clark, and your desire to seek mentors over money, work hard and support your teammates. It’s your program but not your team such incredible insights and lessons from this podcast and your book. Let Them Lead. Thanks so much show notes will be up at Mark Divine.com. You can find me on Twitter at Mark Divine and on Instagram and Facebook at Real Mark Divine. You can also hit me up at LinkedIn plug for my newsletter Divine Inspiration, where every week on Tuesday, I send out a newsletter with with a short take on this week’s podcast, my blog book I’m reading and some other interesting things including a practice you can try. Go to Mark Divine.com to subscribe if you have not yet. And please share it with your friends. Shout out to my incredible team Jason Sanderson, Geoff Haskell and Catherine Divine who helped produce this podcast and bring incredible guests like John to you every week. Super appreciate reviews and ratings. If you haven’t done so please consider doing so, by rating app wherever you listen to the show Apple or Spotify in particular, it helps other people find the show and keeps us ranked in the top 10! The world is changing fast, and it is getting more complex and more chaotic and seems to be accelerating. And you can get control of it. How by controlling what you can control which is your mind and your emotions. It’s what we do at SEAL FIT. And we love to train you to do that. So check out SEALFIT.com to learn about our performance challenges, and or our crucibles, or our high end mastermind called Unbeatable Teams, great stuff. We’’ll train you to be physically strong, mentally tough, work well as a team and to be the change you’d like to see in the world with a team. Until next time. Thanks again for your support. This is Mark Divine. Hooyah!


Transcribed by Catherine and https://otter.ai



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