It’s an exciting day [at press time] for me as the NFL kicks off with the Houston Texans taking on the Kansas City Chiefs. I’ve often drawn comparisons between the lessons learned in sports and the lessons we can glean as leaders, and one of my all-time favorite football leaders was Vince Lombardi. The legendary coach was best known as head coach for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and under his leadership the team won three straight and five total NFL championships over the span of seven years, which included winning the first two Super Bowls at the end of the 1966 and 1967 seasons.
Vince Lombardi’s biography, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” written by David Maraniss, is a classic read for leaders in any field or industry. Lombardi’s life was really a prototypical guidebook for leading with excellence.
To celebrate the official start of the NFL season and commemorate a truly great coach, here are seven leadership lessons from Vince Lombardi:
- Winning is a habit. Lombardi had a no-loss attitude. He once said, “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” Lombardi also believed winning is a repeatable act. He explained, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all-the-time thing. You don’t win once in a while … you don’t do things right once in a while … you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.”
- Pay the price it takes. Being on Vince Lombardi’s team required complete dedication and maximum effort. Just as winning was not a sometime thing, commitment to team goals was also not a sometime thing. There was either full commitment or nothing. His practices were notoriously excruciating, and he led them with a no-nonsense, hard-nose approach. Lombardi believed you simply had to put in the effort to reap the reward.
- Take responsibility for your role. While coaching the Packers, Lombardi demanded an unyielding commitment to doing the hard work. (As the saying goes, it’s the hard that makes you great.) From every player to every member of his staff, he instilled a philosophy of excellence and never settled for anything less. In promoting the highest level of performance, he also solidified his role as a strong coach as well as the specific roles his team members played in achieving the team’s Wildly Important Goals (WIGs). For Lombardi, we could assume the team’s WIG was to win the Super Bowl every year. Lombardi’s rigidly defined roles also necessitated a level of trust and respect; if a player did not listen or comply with his philosophy, they were gone.
- Success is built on perseverance and hard work. Lombardi said the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. He stressed the importance of hard, physical work and said, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” He also explained, “By working harder, you are going to out-execute, out-block and out-tackle every team that comes your way.” This same concept applies for hard work in any field. When you put in the work, you’ll simply out-perform your competition every time.
- Be as loyal as you are demanding. Yes, Lombardi was demanding but he was also an empathetic leader who was fiercely loyal to his team. He cared about his players’ needs and values and his team members always knew Coach Lombardi had their backs. This unwavering loyalty greatly contributed to his players strict adherence to his demanding coaching style. He gave as much to them as he expected them to give.
- Set your goals higher than you think you can attain. While Lombardi knew absolute perfection could never really be achieved, he also understood that if you don’t set your goals higher than what you think you can accomplish, you’ll be cheating yourself out of an opportunity to excel. He said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” By setting goals higher than Coach Lombardi thought his teammates could achieve, he was actually programming the non-conscious portion of their brains. The non-conscious portion of the brain is servile, which means it sets no goals of its own, it does not judge the merit or the value of the goal, it only tries to carry out the given order. Lombardi probably had not studied that concept as the studies of the non-conscious portion of the brain came out with the development of the MRI, years after he had passed on. However, his high goal setting was in effect allowing his team members to achieve more than they ever thought possible.
- The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual. According to Lombardi’s winning leadership philosophy, nothing would be achieved without everyone’s full effort. Call it swing or synchronicity but when all team members are working toward a common goal and playing full out, anything is possible. Lombardi was an advocate of the notion that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
So, what’s the message? The tenets of Lombardi’s leadership style apply on and off the football field. As he firmly believed, a team defined by hard work, commitment, accountability, loyalty and dedication will always win.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.