Episode 8: The ‘human science’ of leadership, featuring Fritz Seyferth

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Episode 8: Fritz Seyferth — “The ‘human science’ of leadership”

Hi I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

My guest in this episode of Listen-In Michigan is engineering grad, Fritz Seyferth principal of Fritz Seyferth and Associates it’s a management consulting firm that specializes in team building and leadership development. Fritz came to the university and to Michigan football in the late sixties as a walk-on. And he made the roster in 1969 playing for both Bump Elliott and Bo Schembechler. As a senior he started every game, finished with a perfect record, and in his final college football game he scored a fourth quarter touchdown: the only one for Michigan in the 1972 Rose Bowl which the Wolverines lost by one point to Stanford. After a short career in professional football Fritz worked for Arthur Young and Company in New York City but then he jumped at the chance to join Schembechler’s football staff and to identify and study what he calls the human science behind his former coaches’ enduring success. So as the nation navigates the chaos of the 2016 presidential election, it seemed like a good time to talk to a leadership expert like Fritz, about character, temperament, integrity, and the other characteristics that make good leaders and teams both at work and at home. Here’s Fritz.

Fritz Seyferth: Being a part of a small community of people that are sacrificing to make this team, even though I was doing it as a walk-on, gave me a small community of people because I knew nobody on this campus to relate to and be a part of. And so I wanted to make the team just because I wanted to have a group of friends to hang with.

Holdship: It happened to be Bo’s first year too, right?

Seyferth: Our first year was under Bump Elliott and then Bo came in January of our freshman year, and that was quite a transition.

Holdship: What do you mean?

Seyferth: He told us we had about 75 players on the team returning from the 1968 team and about 75 walk-ons trying to make the team. And it was part of the Michigan tradition that if you are on campus and wanted to try out for the football team, you’re welcome to come on out, try out in the spring. And if you can make it through the winter conditioning program, then you get a chance to get a uniform and tryout for the spring. But the spring conditioning program was a six to eight-week program — very, very grueling. Well, we had 150 players, Bo came to us and made this statement: he said, “Men, I can’t work with 150. There’s too many people. I’m gonna put you through the most difficult spring you’ve ever experienced in your life. But I promise you this, those who stay will be champions.” And that’s where the statement came from. And we lost starters on the team! We probably finished with under 80 players by the end of the spring because that many quit, but it bonded us. And the concept of a team came together that spring because it was us against everybody, including the coaches because they were just beating the hell out of us, and all we had was each other. And so we really built a bond that we have today. And the analogy is that what we find in business is that we find who people are under pressure and there’s no question that everybody was bare their soul on who they were in that spring of 1969. Bo knew what he had in a team.

Holdship: So what kind of things did he do that you try to encourage other people to do?

Seyferth: So, Bo was a natural gifted leader. He couldn’t do it any other way. And one of the things we find that some percent of all leaders out there are blessed to not have a choice in what they do because they’re just wired to do the right thing. The wonderful thing is is that our feeling is that 80% of all leaders can become that competent. And so I spent 14 years studying: What is it the exceptionally great teams do that’s different than the really, really good teams as their differentiator? And can we systematize this — be an engineer? I was fascinated by the fact is there science behind success? And there is. The question is, how can we bring an assemblage of individual identities together and make a team out of them so that each will sacrifice a little bit in service of the greater good of the whole? And that takes a maturity and Bo was really looking at people that had a maturity. The ability to think bigger than themselves, the ability to think beyond my scoring the touchdown. It’s about the team winning the game. Bo made it very very clear that what you do is always in service of the team, and we’ll help you be the best you can be because the better you are, the better the team is. One of the things that Bo did was that he lived his life in service of others. There’s legacy is built on making a difference in other people’s lives. He was tough, but you knew he loved you. You knew that he cared deeply about you and he just wanted you to be the best you possibly could be. And that’s what great leaders do. As it turns out, charisma has nothing to do with leadership! It has nothing to do with leadership. It is all about your “why” you exist that motivates people to follow you. It is not your charisma. Charisma can get you started but it won’t finish the game for you. It is the “why you exist” and “what are you doing to help other people become better as a leader” that gets people enamored and following you. And what gives people like Bo a bigger than life legacy after they’re gone because they impact other people’s lives.

Holdship: It seems also to be a very spiritual thing which is not necessarily something you associate with business. You talk a lot about the “why” and also about the power of visualizing and connecting to a higher purpose, having integrity, having mindfulness. How do you communicate those principles as legitimate to people who are very data-driven and science-oriented and think they are being kind of spacey and hippy-like when you talk about that?

Seyferth: Yeah! So, what we do is, as an organization we go in to help companies understand what they look like when they’re at the best. And if you’re interested in being the best you can possibly be as an organization, we need to understand what the individuals are in that organization and what’s important to them on working together. And why are they doing what they’re doing? So, we’ll do a series of interviews, collect data points on components of their identity and what they might look like when they’re at the best. And then we do a full-day retreat where they get a chance to vote through lobbying, men telling stories about why they think this component has to be who we are when we’re at our best. And in the end, after a full day together of bantering back and forth, we solidify the core identity of the organization of what it looks like when it’s at its best… and they developed it! It’s intrinsically a part of every organization whether they know it or not. Put it this way; organizations know when they violate it and they know when they honor it — they’re not quite sure what it is, but it does exist in every organization.

Holdship: It’s good in theory, but how challenging is it to implement in practice?

Seyferth: First of all, it is the identification. It is the appreciation that every organization has a core identity; what it looks like when it’s at its best. And if it’s developed by the team, by the people, by the mass if they develop it then they own it. And they will hold each other more responsible to it. And it’s never about the individual, it’s about the organization. What does the organization look like when it’s at its best and we are responsible to believe you’re honoring that. And every individual’s identity is a little put on but we have to move ours including leaders. And one of the things we teach leaders is to help them understand who they are. Help them understand what the organization is. And then, how do they adjust their behavior so they honor the organization? Because it’s about the organization, it’s not about them. It’s “the team” as Bo taught. So vividly, it’s always about the team: it’s never about the leader or the individual.

Holdship: What about like in our personal lives like leading a family. If you’ve got a divorced family and you and your ex are trying to co-parent your children. I’m in a situation now with aging parents and dealing with my siblings, trying to manage a move from Florida back up to Michigan and we each have our different roles and responsibilities. But how does that work small-scale like that in families and marriage and all that kinda stuff? So the way we would work with a family like you in concept would be to get the family together and talk about a desired future. What would you like the future to look like for you, for your family, for your parents? What is the desired future you’d like to see? Let’s tell stories of where we’ve seen it. That’s deeply meaningful to us that that’s where we want to go. And then, can we come to an agreement with everybody giving a little bit on what a shared vision might look like for our parents.

Holdship: The emotions are probably a lot higher in families. How do you manage those emotions and respect each other’s place in one of those conversations?

Seyferth: But what we’d like to say is that first of all we’re all born into the world with blinders on. And then we go on a narrow path of life’s potential opportunities to learn and experience what is out there in the world. And we get so far down the path, we’ve come to the conclusion we have the answer. We have no answers. We have perspectives and we’d like to make a contribution to the whole because the issue is not you, it’s ours, and all we can contribute is a perspective. The more perspectives we get, the better decisions we make. There was a book written in the late 90s called The Wisdom of Crowds that talked about how large quantities of people come up with great decisions when they really don’t know the subject matter as well as the experts. Because there’s so many perspectives that they’ve looked at it from that they’ve figured it out.

Holdship: That’s an interesting point. I mean just the fact that you say there are no answers, there are perspectives. Because I think we’re all looking for the answer!

Seyferth: Yes! And there are four stages of fulfillment and why we do what we do all day every day. We’ll start our day with a cup of coffee because it’s just about us but that happiness only lasts a couple hours. And then we’ll get to the office and we’ll do some reading or read a book or watch a TED Talk to learn and grow so that we can compete and win in our game up for our expertise. So we have this competency. But that joy only last a few months that when we get a bonus or a reward, or we get a contract it’ll only last a few months. Stage two is something that’s very fleeting. Yet we find 83% of American companies are stage two companies that are in it to beat somebody else. They are not in it to contribute to anybody. The transition comes with maturity, stage three of fulfillment which is about making a contribution to other people’s lives today. And the joy we get from that lasts years. Stage four is a legacy that we believe we’re here to make a difference in the world. Bo believed that he was responsible for putting 120 young men out into the world to have a bigger impact on their communities than Bo could ever have himself. That was his vision of the difference and he wanted to make that joy. That fulfillment is always with us because it’s faith-based that we don’t know. But we think what we’re doing is gonna make a difference in tomorrow.

Holdship: So that requires courage I guess and clarity. There’s so much chaos in this world it’s hard to find the clarity to know what the right path to follow.

Seyferth: Yes, and there is no one right path. As we say, a leader is responsible for gathering the collective intelligence of the organization to make a decision with all those perspectives what’s the best we can do, and if we’re wrong, then we’ll all learn from it, and if we’re right it represents us in a very positive manner as an organization. It is not about the leader having the answer. It’s about them being responsible for the best collective intelligence of the organization. And so yes, we have to make money so we stay in business. But it’s an after the fact report card. It’s not the purpose for being in business. The purpose for being a business is to make a contribution that people are willing to pay a premium for because you do it better than anybody else. Like to show the inverted leadership pyramid that really the key is the customer. And the next most important people are the people that deal with the customer. And then the next most important people are the people that cut the front-line people report to whether they’re the manufacturers or the salesman. Who do they report to? The least important are the leaders of the organization because they’re just supposed to respond to the needs of the people that work for them. Zingermann’s is a great example. Here in Ann Arbor. If you want to be successful, as an individual, as a family, as an organization of any size, of any kind, there are two guiding principles you must possess. One is that you’re always building trust in each other. The second is caring, which has to do with respect, empathy, love, which I think is a word that will be much more prevalent in 25-50 years than it is today in the business world because it really is at the core of what makes greatness and organizations possible. It is of love for each other that you showed up today, that you cared enough to prepare, that you want to do the best you possibly could, and we love that about you that you did that. And we, unfortunately, have found out the hard way when we’ve clarified identities and those were not there, those companies are no longer with us either. We probably should have led off with saying “your company is your people, it is not your product.” It is not your building, not your logo, it is your people because it is your people that if you’re going to sell somebody is going to be buying. It is not your patent, because that patent is going to run out and who the people are going to create the next patent. The point is, do we want to be better tomorrow than we are today? Do we want to grow? And the growth mindset is probably the key to successful leaders and successful organizations. They don’t mind making mistakes and they don’t mind revealing who they are because they know tomorrow they’re going to be better than they are today, and they know that today they’re better than they were yesterday. And we take responsibility for that growth. It is our responsibility for that journey and it’s our responsibility to have that vision of what that better tomorrow is going to look like and on a daily basis we take incremental steps in that direction.

Holdship: What can we do in our daily life that will help us maybe lead happier lives as a result of some of the principles you talked about?

Seyferth: This requires discipline too. As all great leaders, all great athletes are not great athletes because they were naturally great, because they work their tails off to be great. Great leaders of the same way. They have to have some degree of talent to do it, but then they have to work their tails off to do it. And individually, what we have found is journaling. Writing. When I journal I know whatever I’m doing at that point in time during the day is the most important thing I could be doing. I’m not daydreaming about “am I supposed to be someplace else? Am I supposed to be calling somebody else? Is there something else that’s more important for me to be doing?” No. I know that in the moment, I’m doing what I meant to do, but also in the journaling, you write down where does your energy come from? Because life is about energy. And if we can track where our energy comes from, it connects to our purpose in life. And that’s what we need to be doing more of. What were the things that were invigorating that made you feel good about that day? And that has something to do with who you were meant to be, and we’re all different. If you want to connect with who you are meant to be, journal. And you’ll begin to see over time some simple things repeat themselves. The other thing is there’s some there’s some joys that come into our daily life that we absolutely don’t appreciate today because we take it for granted. But when you start journaling, you appreciate it on the energy that it did bring into your life. And that you don’t take that for granted at the next time that happens. The number one motivator of mankind is that “my life has meaning.” The number one indicator that my life has meaning is there’s some dial I’m moving. And that’s why we need to have a report card that measures. How are we doing because that is deeply meaningful to us to have a measurement? This is my life actually is making the difference.

Holdship: That feeds quite beautifully into my last question I was going to ask you if you still hear Bo’s voice in your head, and if so, what is he saying to you?

Seyferth: He knew how to challenge people to go places that they could not have gone themselves. And so that is so embedded in me, that I find it very easy for me to do for my clients. And perhaps my family, who may not like it. (Laughs.) But that we can be more than we are today but we can’t continue to do what we did today, tomorrow and expect to be better. So what we can do different tomorrow? Stretch yourself. There’s so much more capacity in every individual than we understand. Who are the people that we admire most in our lives? Those that have taken us places we never dreamed we could go. And that’s Bo did. So that’s the voice. What are you doing to help other people be more than they could possibly be by themselves?

Holdship: Well, that certainly gives us something to think about. I hope you enjoyed the conversation, until next time, go blue!

From sidetrack to success

Like any good engineer worth his Michigan degree, executive coach Fritz Seyferth, BSIOE ’73, takes a systems approach to virtually everything in life.

Consider his consulting business, Fritz Seyferth & Associates (FS&A), in which he demystifies the “human science” behind enduring success. It’s his way of helping organizations develop exceptional leaders and extraordinary teams.

Seyferth has decades of credible experience on which to draw, beginning in 1968 when he joined the U-M football team as a walk-on player. He finished his senior year with a perfect record, starting every game and scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown in the 1972 Rose Bowl. In the classroom, he earned a scholarship in engineering and collected a number of academic awards.

But it was his relationship with legendary coach Bo Schembechler after he ended his football career that most inspired his current passion.

“Bo was a natural, gifted leader,” says Seyferth. “He couldn’t do it any other way. In being around him, I wanted to know: Can you repeat winning? And as an engineer, I needed to know: ‘Is there a system behind success?’ And I found, yes. Yes, there is.”

Words of wisdom

Listen in as Fritz Seyferth shares knowledge we can use at work, at home, and in daily life to lead happier, more fulfilling lives. Hear more “Listen In, Michigan” podcasts. Subscribe at iTunesTunein, and Stitcher.

There’s something about Bo

It is likely Seyferth would not have discovered this truth had he not made what colleagues in 1979 called a “huge mistake, a major sidetrack” when he left Arthur Young & Company in New York to accept a position on Schembechler’s football staff.

“There was just something about the experience of being with Bo that was hard to quantify at the time,” he says of the opportunity to observe his mentor on a daily basis. It was then that he began to study — and ultimately systematize — the approach to leadership that today comprises the core of FS&A’s leadership coaching business.

Seyferth estimates about six percent of people are natural-born leaders, like Schembechler. And some 80 percent of us possess the potential to be great leaders — with the right education, he says. Great leaders, like great athletes, require vision, focus, and discipline, of course. But most importantly, they need to establish the “why” of what they do.

The best leaders are compelled to contribute to other people’s lives, and to embrace a legacy that “we’re here to make a difference bigger than ourselves,” he says.

Anyone familiar with Schembechler is well aware of his famous credo: “The team, the team, the team.” That was just one early lesson Seyferth gleaned from his longtime boss.

“One of the things Bo did was live his life in service of others. He’s that person people followed because he was there for them. He was tough but you knew he loved you. That’s what great leaders do.”

Getting better all the time

For two decades, Seyferth contributed to Michigan Athletics as director of football operations, recruiting coordinator, and executive associate athletic director. In 2002 he moved to the U-M Health System as director of development for what is now known as the Frankel Cardiovascular Center.

That same year he founded Ann Arbor-based FS&A, and his team has worked with clients in health care, construction, real estate development, and higher education among others. The goal is to set the foundation of winning for “leaders who desire to capitalize upon natural strengths to realize individual and organizational peak performance.”

Among the many tenets his team shares with clients? Growth mindset. It is a key determinant of winning. But that requires maturity, humility, trust, and, yes, love.

“Successful leaders and successful organizations don’t mind making mistakes,” Seyferth says, “and they don’t mind revealing who they are, because they know tomorrow they’re going to be better than they are today, and they know today they are better than they were yesterday.”


  1. Ron J Stefanski

    Fritz, this is outstanding. I was a student on the sidelines watching Bo in the last chapter of his coaching career (1978-1982). I never followed sports until I came to Michigan, but I became such a diehard fan because his leadership instilled such pride in being part of the Michigan institution and part of something bigger than ourselves. It was also part of my inspiration to found The Michigan Review on campus, because he felt every student should leave something behind on campus. Even now I often use “the team the team the team” speech in presentations. Many businesses and their teams need to instill this value.


  2. Jackie Young - 1986

    I really enjoyed this article as one who is studying effective, positive leadership in my Arizona home.


  3. Jo Rumsey - 1971. 1976

    Well done, Fritz! Thank you.


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