The NFL season is upon us, which for many of you is the best time of year. I am not a huge NFL fan, but I will still watch some games, as I recover from my College Football Saturday hangover. Each year, every team heads into the season hopeful that they will raise the Lombardi Trophy as the winner of the championship.
The Super Bowl trophy is named after one of the all-time great NFL coaches, Vince Lombardi. He is famous for being a strong, tough, and fearless leader. He said once, “We never lost a game; we just ran out of time.” He hated losing more than he loved winning. Excellence was all he accepted from his players. He would not tolerate less than 100% at all times from his teams.
In a sports leadership class that I was recently teaching, I asked my students to watch short videos on about 20 different past NFL coaches, and then write down characteristics that they admired, and that they did not, in each coach. Coach Lombardi was one of the coaches in the videos, along with former coaches such as Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh, Tony Dungy, Don Shula, Mike Ditka, John Madden, George Halas, and Tom Landry, to name a few.
Each coach had his own unique style for leading his team, and the videos showed interviews with former players, assistant coaches, and others who knew these men very well.
They all had tremendous success; many won multiple championships, coached Hall of Fame players, and developed outstanding successors. But each had a very unique style.
Two that come to mind immediately for me are Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy. Both have won it all, have coached legendary players, and developed a long line of successful assistant coaches. Yet their styles could not be more dramatically opposite.
Parcells and Dungy have both won over 140 games as a coach, and they have 3 Super Bowl wins combined as coaches, as well. (Parcells 2, and Dungy 1, although he also won once as a player)
Parcells was known for being tough, demonstrative on the sidelines, in the face of his players constantly, always yelling at his guys, often belittling them in front of others, and sometimes grabbing them and shoving them to the bench. In other words, Parcells was the stereotypical head football coach. He was tough, he was vocal, and he always expressed his feelings, many times on camera!
Dungy was much more soft spoken, led more by example than by words, could be seen putting his arms around players on the sideline just about every week, and smiled more than just about any coach on game days. Dungy, a devoted family man and strong Christian, never swore on the sidelines, and rarely screamed at the officials.
An old boss of mine was an NFL referee, and worked several games coached by both Parcells and Dungy. “The difference in their styles was as different as night and day”, he told me once. “But the one common denominator in both coaches was that it was clear that each loved his team, and would step in front of a bus for any one of his players, from the star quarterback, to the 3rd string kicker!”
As you can see, their styles were completely different, yet their results were very similar.
I have heard dozens of players who played for these two coaches say very similar things. “He loved coaching, he loved his players, and I always knew he was in my corner. “ “He was fair, and he was tough, but I knew he was dedicated to teaching us the game, and to winning.” “Coach was loyal to everyone who wore our uniform, and always treated us like we were his own sons. All of us knew he had our backs, no matter what.” “We won because he was passionate, he was smart, and he brought out the best in us, in games, but especially in practice, and he always expected great things from us on and off the field.”
These are just a few quotes from former players who played for either Parcells or Dungy. It really doesn’t matter who said what about whom. What matters is this: There is not a leadership style that is one size fits all. The important thing is to lead from your own experiences, be true to your style, and most importantly, be committed to your people, be fiercely loyal to them, and be a resource to them in all things, at all times, and in all places. You are not there to be their friend. You are there to be their ally, their mentor, their beacon, and their defender. They can trust you to guide them where they cannot go without you.
We can read thousands of leadership books about how to lead, but the books about great leaders are so much more powerful. Find leaders you admire, and study their lives, their behaviors, and their styles. Emulate the ones that you think are, or were, great. Perhaps it was a famous world leader. Maybe you most admire an old coach, or your parents. Some of my greatest leadership examples have come from my parents, my high school baseball coach, a few teachers, and coaches, and many of you who demonstrate great leadership qualities as you lead your companies, your families, or other groups and teams.
Each of us has our own unique personality, which ultimately determines the way we treat people, lead people, and interact with those around us. Our leadership and communication style will be determined by our personalities.
Do not try to be what you are not. Lead from your life, from your experiences, and from what is true and authentic to you. This is the only style that works across every situation.
So what kind of leader is the best? Simple. You. Be you. Emulate others, but lead from your heart.