Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

In my thirty-plus years as a coach, I got to know some good ones. One of the best was Bob Lateral, the sophomore basketball coach at Tech High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He said, “In my early days, I was a screamer. I broke a lot of clipboards.” One day his Athletic Director called him in and said, “Bob, there is another way.” 

Taking that advice, Bob went to work on his coaching style and became one of the most level-headed coaches I have ever known. His teams were well-coached, well-disciplined, well-organized, well-behaved, and they won. In fact, he won over 75% of his games as the sophomore coach at Tech. He was also the Girls’ Softball Coach, won a couple of state championships, and did it without breaking clipboards.

The same was true in the classroom. Bob was mathematically sound, and you could hear a pin drop in the room. He achieved the same climate in his lower-level classes with at-risk students as he did with his advanced students and did it all without raising his voice.

Bob’s Athletic Director became more than his AD, he became a mentor, and his mentorship was the catalyst that led to his calm and controlled coaching style and the ultimate success that followed.

Bob Hughes, a friend who officed in the same complex as me, shared a story about his former boss, Larry Meyer. Larry was the founder and CEO of Meyer Associates in St. Cloud and served as Mayor for several years. Bob said that he learned so much from Larry about handling problems and dealing with people. To this day, he thanks Larry for not just being the person in charge but for taking the time and caring enough to become his mentor. 

When successful people share their stories, the account of their achievement invariably includes fond memories of and appreciation for the person who was not just their manager but their mentor. Often it was a parent, teacher, or coach, but in so many cases it was the person they worked for who saw something special in them and gave them encouragement and confidence.

My workplace mentor was J.T. Ryan, who owned the grocery store in my hometown of Morton, Minnesota. I had the honor to work for him for ten years through high school and college, and I still cherish the memories and appreciate what he taught. Throughout his years in Morton, he provided employment and guidance to 11 young people, and I know they all share that same fondness.

As an educational administrator, you have the opportunity to be somebody’s J.T. Ryan or Larry Meyer, especially those who aspire to move up the educational ladder. Add a genuine concern for them as human beings, and you will leave a lasting legacy. Be more than a manager. Be a mentor.

Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and an author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. Excerpts from his latest books, Emotional Intelligence 101 and Coaches Make the Difference,” can be previewed at 

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