3 Business Leadership Lessons We Can All Learn from Football

As a leader, you’re entrusted with many demanding responsibilities. Yes, that’s a pretty obvious statement. What’s not as obvious are the traits successful leaders have that allow them to not just mitigate the pressure these responsibilities may pose, but thrive in the face of challenges. No matter if it’s in business, government, or sports, those who know how to finish strong also know how to plan, anticipate, delegate, and appreciate.

Football is a big activity that brings my family together. Apart from just generally enjoying the game, I spend time outside of the office watching my kids play and talking to them about the strategy of the game. Football is about more than just running, passing, blocking, and tackling. It is a complex sport that involves orchestrated planning, teamwork, and preparation—all of which are critical considerations that apply to leadership at the office or on the field.

As we gear up for the Super Bowl, I’ve spent time reflecting on three of the most valuable business leadership lessons I’ve learned from football, shaped by the words of some of the game’s all-time greats:

 

#1: “The achievements of an organization are the result of the combined effort of each individual.”  -Vince Lombardi

Football teams have 11 members on the field at any given time, and working in sync is integral to winning. If a coach draws up a play but it gets broken by a single missed tackle or poorly run route, the entire play stands a good chance of failing. You can apply the same rule to leading a company; there are a lot of moving parts spanning across departments, and getting cross-functional teams to work together effectively can be challenging. When you have a lot of people involved – and a mix of veterans and new recruits – it’s hard to count on everyone doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. When one person isn’t doing their part, it can impact an entire company. This is true no matter if you’re talking about a company of 11 or 800.

When working with large, dispersed teams, it’s okay to be frustrated when plans go wrong. However, you cannot let that frustration dictate the way you run your company. For example, when a player fumbles the ball, lingering on that mistake doesn’t do anyone any good. Instead of dwelling on it, be supportive, invest the time to understand how and why the breakdown occurred, and clearly communicate the outcomes and future expectations. The axiom “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” is especially true in business. Consistent, respectful, and transparent communication can go a long way toward elevating the attitude of each employee, and, in turn, delivers a more cohesive and productive team. Don’t wait to address the negatives, and make sure you highlight the positives occurring around you every day to provide teachable examples of what success looks like.

#2: “It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.”  -Bear Bryant

I can guarantee you every CEO has some type of company vision or winning game plan, but many don’t share it with employees. That’s a mistake. I believe motivation comes from transparency, and this understanding stems from clear leadership and employee support. The overarching vision is only part of what creates success—it’s the day-to-day employee interaction that generates powerful outcomes. Every team knows winning is the ultimate goal.  But if you tell your team they need to score a touchdown without calling the right plays to move them down the field, the result will likely end up in confusion, and even worse, apathy. Similarly, if your teams don’t understand your goals as a leader, then it will be difficult for them to perform at their best. You must give them the insight and encouragement needed to reach their full potential and the foresight to visualize a play before it develops. When it comes to company goals, help them understand the “why” before the “how.”

Succeeding in business is obviously not easy, no matter how well you plan. Many variables can determine whether a decision will result in success. While some are out of your control, failing to plan will almost certainly default in a plan to fail. By investing in employee training and knowledge, leaders can successfully play the long game of generating a winning business strategy that can overcome planned and unplanned obstacles. Football is no different; you have a team for a whole season but each game only lasts 60 minutes – an incredibly high-pressure situation. The remedy for these challenges, in both business and football, is practice, repetition, and execution. Just as running a play will become second nature for the players who practice the most, high-quality work is likely to follow when leaders implement consistent, effective standards and expectations.

The bottom line is this: Success requires a company-wide unwavering dedication to excellence. So, share your vision, motivate employees and strengthen your teams to ensure you not only start strong but finish even stronger.

#3: “I don’t believe in team motivation. I believe in getting a team prepared so it knows it will have the necessary confidence when it steps on a field and be prepared to play a good game.” –Tom Landry

There comes a point when leaders need to trust in the teams they’ve built and release some control. Instead of immediately jumping in and attempting to fix the situation, be patient. Giving employees breathing room to pivot and problem solve enables them to grow as individuals. This lays the foundation for additional leadership skills to emerge within teams. While leaders do need to make calls alone, they also must have the courage to allow their teams to drive decisions as well. Business is a team sport, so you need to ensure each player is given the opportunity to prove themselves.

 

Over the years, I’ve applied these lessons from football to business environments. Trust, repetition, and clear communication have helped spur individual and collective growth within organizations, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with and lead exceptional people. While football isn’t always top of mind when I conduct business, it’s taught me valuable lessons in the boardroom. Just as practicing an effective two-minute drill can make the difference between winning the game or not, the same can be said for business. Keep trying, keep improving, and never settle for anything less than your full potential—that’s how you truly win the game.

About Michael Gold

Michael Gold is Chief Executive Officer of Intermedia.