From the gridiron to the corner office: Football lessons in leadership

By January 24, 2018 Blog No Comments

The Super Bowl matchup is set, and fans of the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles are giddy in anticipation of the big game on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.

Football brings excitement and drama, and the achievements that happen during a season are a testament to players and coaches going the extra mile. Some of these moments can be valuable lessons for business leaders as well. Here’s a look at some of those triumphs that can relate from the field to the corner office.

 

‘The Minneapolis Miracle’

The Minnesota Vikings were down to their last play in their playoff game at home against New Orleans on Jan. 14. Just 10 seconds were left, and the team was losing by a point when quarterback Case Keenum hit receiver Stefon Diggs with a long pass around the 34-yard line. The Saints defender, safety Marcus Williams, missed the tackle and took out another defender on the attempt, and Diggs managed to maintain his balance and race into the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown as time expired. What began as a desperate last-second play turned into “The Minneapolis Miracle,” and the Vikings advanced to the NFC Championship game.

Business lesson: Keep moving forward. There will be trying times for leaders in any business, but perseverance is essential. As David K. Williams writes in a story for Forbes, “… perseverance is passion in action, the ‘grit’ that gets us over life’s hurdles and obstacles.”

“It is the trait that pushes people through failures and challenges — both the little, day-to-day walls that stand in the way of the business they are trying to launch or grow, and the colossally big ones that threaten the core of the business,” he says. “Perseverance ensures we understand that giving up is never an option.”

 

Quarterback excellence

Tom Brady has already won more Super Bowls (five) than any other quarterback, and the 40-year-old Patriots star gets a shot at a sixth. Though he was overlooked coming out of college (he was drafted in the sixth round, No. 199, in 2000), Brady’s leadership, preparation and strict physical regimen have helped him to become an all-time great.

Business lesson: A CEO’s work ethic can have a huge impact on the rest of the business. Employees naturally look for the leadership to set the tone, so executives that have a dedicated, whatever-it-takes attitude can inspire others to follow in their footsteps. As Amelia Jenkins writes for the Houston Chronicle, “Every employee, from the CEO to entry-level workers, must have a good work ethic to keep the company functioning at its peak.” One of the keys, she writes, is responsibility.

“A strong sense of responsibility affects how an employee works and the amount of work she does,” Jenkins says. “When the employee feels personally responsible for her job performance, she shows up on time, puts in her best effort and completes projects to the best of her ability.”

 

Quick change

Turning a bad team into a good one can take years. And then sometimes it happens faster than anyone expected. Take the Los Angeles Rams, who went 4-12 in 2016. Under first-year coach Sean McVay, the team went 11-5 in 2017 and made the playoffs. Jacksonville experienced a similar boost with coach Doug Marrone. He was the interim coach at the end of the 2016 season after Gus Bradley was fired. The Jaguars went 3-13 that year, but under Marrone improved to 10-6 in 2017, making it all the way to the AFC Championship game.

Business lesson: When an underperforming business brings in a new CEO, there may be tough transitions for all involved. Gabriel Bristol detailed ways for CEOs to approach this in a story for Fast Company, including keeping an open mind, sharing their vision and leaning on employees to get “a sense of what the culture is.” He also recommends transparency among the leaders.

“This does not mean you relay worst-case scenarios, but you should be realistic about the potential pitfalls, time frame of a reorganization, and the upside when the strategy has worked,” Bristol explains. “If you aren’t transparent or somehow obfuscate, employees will quickly pick up on the mixed messages and perceive it as manipulation and dishonesty. You also run the risk of having key employees jump ship when you need them the most.”

 

Deal with setbacks

The Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in last year’s Super Bowl, allowing the Patriots to win the title in the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. That was an awfully tough pill to swallow for Atlanta and its fans, and the team could’ve easily had a disastrous follow-up year as a result. But the Falcons, after some struggles in the 2017 regular season, returned to the playoffs and knocked off the Los Angeles Rams in the wild card round. The Falcons fell to eventual NFC champ Philadelphia in the divisional round, but getting back to the playoffs showed resilience and grit.

Business lesson: Problems in business are inevitable, and executives will need to handle them with grace and strength. The fallout after a major misstep can be difficult to navigate, so the CEO will need to guide employees through it and emphasize learning from it. Leonard Kim suggests developing “emotional rollercoaster resilience” — based on the advice of Chris Folayan, founder/CEO of MallforAfrica — in a story for Inc.com.

“With all problems come disappointment,” Kim notes. “An emotional roller-coaster effect built on the repetitive concept of should have, would have, could have will never get you anywhere. The rollercoaster will keep moving whether you are on it or not. Instead of being disappointed, focus, regroup, then execute better the next time around.”

 

Young talent

Two of the NFL’s most exciting players were rookie running backs that weren’t even drafted in the first round. New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (drafted 67th overall) and Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt (No. 86) were dazzling in their first year. Kamara rushed for 728 yards and eight touchdowns, had 826 yards receiving with five touchdowns, and added one touchdown on a kick return. Hunt rushed for 1,327 yards and scored 11 total touchdowns.

Business lesson: Star employees may not come from the most obvious places. Dig deeper, look harder and ask the right questions in recruiting top talent. Ty Morse examines “diamonds in the rough” in a Young Entrepreneur Council story for Forbes.

“Too often, we believe that those people, the people we will be able to trust, come from the best institutions or can demonstrate elite credentials,” he explains. “We buy into the educational branding, the quantitative data of GPAs, the scripted recommendation letters. But I believe that the best employees, the ones who will have faith in you and thrive on your drive and leadership, may be those who are too frequently overlooked: those diamonds in the rough who are not generally successful in any traditional sense.”

 

The importance of generosity

Houston Texans star J.J. Watt only played in five games due to injury in 2017. And yet he had arguably the greatest impact among any athlete in any sport, thanks to his off-the-field efforts. Hurricane Harvey had a devastating effect on Houston and other areas in Texas, and Watt raised a staggering $37 million for relief efforts. Watt said in a statement: “While I understand the total recovery from Hurricane Harvey could require upwards of $200 billion, and this $37 million will not be able to help every single person as I so badly wish it could, I have made it my mission to ensure this money makes as large of an impact as possible.”

Business lesson: Helping others can be an important part of leading a successful business. Though some business leaders are more ambitious than others when it comes to charity (Bill Gates’ extraordinary efforts come to mind), there are many opportunities for businesses to make an impact in the community. Drew Hendricks writes about finding the right cause in a story for Forbes.

“A business owner may choose to go in a few different directions with this,” he writes. “Many organizations opt to find a charity that is relevant to their company mission statement. A business whose products or services cater primarily to women may choose to participate in the Komen Race for the Cure to support the fight against breast cancer. A business that manufactures children’s toys may opt to participate in or host a toy drive at Christmastime or hold an event to raise money to support a children’s cancer research hospital. The cause should ideally also be relevant to the community in which the business has a presence.”