Ryan M. Niemiec Psy.D.

What Matters Most?

The Secret to Great Leadership

The character of leadership exemplar, Mark Dantonio of Michigan State.

Posted Dec 07, 2015

Strong leaders and leadership consultants agree on one thing: When it comes to great leadership, the first principle is “leader, know thyself.” In other words, know who you are at your core.

Leaders must know themselves – their personal drives, desires, hopes, abilities, flaws, and most important – their character strengths. The latest research takes this “leader, know thyself” mantra a step further – one must also express those core qualities. It’s the deploying of strengths, it turns out, that matters most. I will examine this through an exemplary leader.

Mark Dantonio, head football coach of Michigan State University, has brought his team to greatness. He’s the first college football coach to ever lead a team to five, 11-win seasons in a six-year span. His team is the only one to sit in the top five the last three years. And, his teams are dominant as the underdog in big games. He is the epitome of a leader who both knows and expresses his best qualities (his character strengths).

I’m not talking about other types of strengths such as talents, skills, interests, or resources, but the category of strength that spurs all the others – that of character.

In making observations about Dantonio’s character strengths, I’ll use the framework of the 24 strengths that scientists have found to be universal across all human beings. In particular, I will target, self-regulation, humility, perspective, kindness, and hope.

Dantonio and Self-Regulation

On the football field, this is arguably Dantonio’s highest strength. He is deliberately calm on the outside, managing his impulses and emotions, regardless of the highs and lows that unfold on the field. Commentators regularly comment that they often don’t see Dantonio smile. This is because he is incredibly emotionally regulated, always focused on the moment and improving that moment. This is by conscious-design but is also part of who Dantonio is as a person.

In this regard, Dantonio is a perfect role model for his players and coaches – calm under pressure. He navigates tumultuous moments with this “wise self-control” and his players do the same (one needs to look no further than two of his proteges, record-breaking quarterbacks Connor Cook and Kirk Cousins, over recent years). Dantonio describes his attitude in days leading up to football games as highly focused and disciplined, not allowing his attention to waver to various distractions in media or television…further evidence of quintessential self-regulation.

Dantonio’s self-regulation and discipline catalyzes other strengths such as his prudence (he’s incredibly well-prepared for every game), perseverance (he never quits and has made it his custom to win on last-second plays and final scoring drives), and bravery (he embodies a courageous approach noting he will play any team and expects to win). Without his self-regulation, these other character strengths would not shine.

Dantonio and Humility

The football team of Michigan State has had groundbreaking accomplishments under Dantonio. But, he is quick to place the cause of success upon the shoulders of his players. He’s quick to build up and praise the talents of his players. In press conferences, he does the same of other teams’ coaches and players. In watching the majority of his interviews at Michigan State, I don’t recall him ever denigrating another player, coach, or team. He doesn’t even hint at the negative. Rather, he finds the positive. He spends his time discussing the success of others instead of pointing to his stunning achievements.

Dantonio and Perspective

Dantonio is unique in that he can shift seamlessly from focusing on a minutia detail in the playbook to quickly stepping back and guiding his team to see the bigger picture. He looks to the future and past: After a big victory, he credits the previous 9 Michigan State teams, coaching staff, and administration, explaining that all of these individuals play a role in creating “a culture” of strength and winning. He then points his team to the future noting where they are headed.

In addition to past and future, Dantonio teaches mindfulness of the present moment. He explains that he and his team try to focus on the play-at-hand, to therefore mindfully attend “in the moment.” Each play is an opportunity for mindful concentration, whether that be offensively, defensively, or special teams. And, Dantonio teaches this perspective strength to his players. Each year, the team rallies around one of Dantonio’s short mantras, such as “you are the ones,” “find the inches,” “chase it,” and “it starts here.” This year, the team's mantra (and destiny) has been “reach higher.”

Dantonio and Kindness

Dantonio’s wider perspective leads him to express heart-based strengths such as kindness. Kindness means to do good things for others. This is easily seen in Dantonio's compassionate approach and father-figure role with his players. It’s also seen in his giving to others such as his visit to a children’s hospital in Texas to a 9-year-old girl suffering from severe scoliosis who refused to wear her medical brace. He explained to her about the important role of medical braces for his injured players for their rehab. Since then, the girl made a dramatic change and has been wearing her brace 12-15 hours per day and is doing much better.

Dantonio and Hope

Hope is linked with positive expectations. And Dantonio’s expectations have no limits. This is what has differentiated him from other great Michigan State leaders such as Nick Saban. Dantonio says he has never gone into a game thinking they will lose and has never felt surprised by any of his wins as a big underdog. While all the 24 character strengths fuel these expectations and translate expectations to success on the field, it is hope that permeates through him and his team.  Dantonio expects to do well. He expects to win. And he expects his players will do so with character.

With gratitude to Dantonio for teaching us about one of the secrets to great leadership – not only "know thyself" but express those character strengths in a balanced way as you lead others.

Dantonio leads from his character strengths. And, his staff and players are inspired to do the same.


Mark Dantonio, to my knowledge, has not yet taken the free VIA Survey to assess his character strengths. If you have additional thoughts about his top strengths, feel free to share them here or with me at ryan@viacharacter.org

Full disclosure: I’m a Michigan State University alumnus, rabid fan, and follower of their athletics, academics, and those that write about MSU. Go Green!