Deion Sanders: A Case Study in Leadership

A low-angle photo of an American football on a grass field with a black background. A field yard line is visible just to the left of the ball. The photo accompanies a blog post about the similarities in leadership styles and personality between American football player turned coach Deion Sanders and Twitter CEO Elon Musk.

A household name in American football, Deion Sanders recently garnered attention again as the new football head coach at the University of Colorado. Will his larger-than-life personality serve him in a leadership role?

Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, discussed the recent exodus of players at Colorado and how Deion Sanders seems as a leader.

Sports—or any high-level competition—can be relevant to the business world. Let’s look at how leader personality and a competitive environment may correspond to talent acquisition strategies.

About Deion Sanders

During the 1990s, Deion Sanders was known as a star player who excelled in multiple sports. A record-holding athlete, Sanders is the only person to have played in both the World Series and the Super Bowl.

In December 2022, he became head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes football team, where he promptly warned the players on his new team to transfer. The implication was that he doesn’t plan to develop them. Sanders implied that he would be filling positions with athletes he feels have more talent.

“‘The best way to change people is to change people,’” Ryne said, quoting Robert Hogan, PhD, our founder. “It’s an important change management organizational strategy. Sometimes that’s the most effective and efficient way to go.”

The Buffaloes previously had one win and 11 losses. Of the 83 players, 63 are not returning.

Similarities with Elon Musk

If this strategy of “cleaning house” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. There are a lot of parallels between how Deion Sanders started his tenure at Colorado and how Elon Musk started his at Twitter.

Both leaders have been criticized for their takeover methods. Yet both leaders have extremely impressive past records of success. As Dr. Hogan pointed out about Musk, “It is difficult to say how the Twitter acquisition will work out for Musk, but if his past business ventures are any indication, it would be hard to bet against him.”

As a player, Sanders won two Super Bowls. As a head coach, he took his team to two Celebration Bowls. Sanders deserves credit for knowing what he is doing. “Look at what’s on the paper,” Blake said, citing Sanders’s success record. “You can’t say that he’s going to do poorly.”

The two leaders are similar in another way. At Twitter, Musk reduced his workforce and enforced policies that called for increased worker commitment, such as in-office work and longer hours. “What Sanders is doing at Colorado is reducing the staff to just those players who are really committed,” Ryne explained. Some employees and players who don’t like how the environment has changed will leave. Others who accept the dramatically new direction will stay.

Will Coach Prime Attract Talent?

Deion Sanders’s popularity is expressed in his nickname “Coach Prime.” As a player with a larger-than-life personality, he built a strong personal brand. His confidence and discipline are likely to attract players who identify with his reputation for hard work and success. “They see that combination and say, ‘That’s who I want to play for,’” Ryne said.

Conversely, the bravado and show of Coach Prime—as well as his recent comments about the transfer portal—might deter some athletes. Will Coach Prime show favoritism by bringing former players along with him? Will he commit to developing new players or encourage them to transfer away?

In business as in sports, recruitment is a challenge. “Attracting talent is a personality question,” Ryne said. In fact, talent attraction is a performance metric backed by personality data. “Personality is definitely predictive of the ability to attract talent to an organization,” he added.

As to Coach Prime’s ability to do so, Blake said, “It’ll be a story to watch over the next few years.”

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 74 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!