The National Football League took center stage on Sunday evening with Super Bowl LI in Houston. In the spirit of the big game, here’s a look at some examples of leadership among players and coaches, past and present, and how they can apply to leaders in the business world.
The legendary coach led the Dallas Cowboys for the team’s first 29 years, including five trips to the Super Bowl and two wins. He was among the league’s most subdued coaches, rarely showing emotion on the sidelines or off. (He once told People magazine, “If you see me showing emotion, then I’m not doing my job.”)
CEO lesson: Introverted bosses can have a significant impact, just as those who are louder and more gregarious. In a story for Forbes, author and executive coach Jennifer B. Kahnweiler writes that introverted leaders “project a reassuring, calm confidence,” even in difficult moments.
“Whenever they get ready for a meeting, a speech or a special event, their secret to success can be summed up in one word: preparation,” she explains. “They often plan and write out their meeting questions well in advance, and for important talks and speeches, they rehearse out loud. They also act ‘as if’: One executive tells me that he pretends to be James Bond before major industry conferences. It makes him feel more cool and confident. They psych themselves up internally, too, by quieting negative thoughts and framing the upcoming experience more positively.”
The longtime quarterback was known for his toughness (starting 297 straight games) and for his enjoyment of the game (see some of that joy in Green Bay’s Super Bowl XXXI win here.). Bob Glauber of Newsday once defined Favre’s approach as “a swashbuckling style and childlike enthusiasm.”
CEO lesson: The subdued leadership approach doesn’t work for everyone, so if you’re openly passionate, be openly passionate. Carmine Gallo writes about this for Monster, using Richard Tait, who started the board game Cranium, as an example. “Tait wore his passion openly,” Gallo writes. “I quickly learned that he wasn’t passionate about building board games; he was passionate about building self esteem. Passion is revealed by asking yourself, ‘What does our company brand stand for? How does it improve the lives of our customers?’ Once you identify what it is you are truly passionate about — your brand’s core purpose — then you should communicate that passion in all of your conversations.”
The former player-turned-coach led the Indianapolis Colts to a win in Super Bowl XLI, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. Dungy, now a commentator for NBC, is known for positivity and preparation. This story on sportsforthesoul.com quotes from Dungy’s book, Uncommon: “Being disciplined in your approach to each day of your life and accomplishing the things you dream of starts by disciplining your thoughts. Focus on those things you want to occur, not those that you do not want to occur. … I’m not suggesting that life will be easy or blessings will be showered upon you if you simply start thinking positively; but what I am suggesting is that negative thinking can’t help but set you back.”
CEO lesson: Stay positive. Some say that this can hinder a CEO. But for others, it’s a key to success. Take this story for Forbes, written by Dan Schawbel. He features Bernie Swain, author, lecturer and cofounder of The Washington Speakers Bureau, who discusses his lessons in leadership.
“Leadership requires a positive attitude and passion,” Swain says in the story. “If you believe in yourself, stay true to those beliefs and remain driven and passionate, you can do just about anything in life. I know that is true because it is what happened to me. The adversity and failure I experienced taught me a lot about leadership.”
The coach of the New England Patriots will be going for his fifth Super Bowl trophy on Sunday. Belichick has a more stoic approach to his coaching style, though he does have a grumpy reputation. This includes not sharing much with the press before and after games. As this Slate story notes, typical preparation questions can get a simple “Yeah, sure” answer, but history-based questions can bring more out of him.
CEO lesson: Don’t be a grump, but there can be value in taking a measured approach in making public statements. In Kahnweiler’s story, she describes the “think first, talk later” way of leading.
“Introverted leaders think before they speak,” she writes. “Even in casual conversations, they consider others’ comments carefully, and they stop and reflect before responding. One executive tells me that he sits back and listens to his leadership team’s ideas and proposals, often using silence to allow even more thoughts to bubble up. Learning by listening, not talking, is a trait that introverts consistently demonstrate.”
Williams was the first black quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft (by Tampa Bay in 1978) and the first to win a Super Bowl (with Washington in 1988; he also won MVP honors in the game). Though Williams has a modest take on the historical significance (“It’s not about whether or not you blazed a trail, it’s about the opportunity that you get,” he said here), he is regarded as a pioneer in the league.
CEO lesson: Be brave and be strong. As Linda Cureton writes for the NASA CIO blog, trailblazers “point the way, take the risks, and change the environment. They have a vision for a different future, a faith that turns their dreams into reality, and a determination that cuts through barriers and obstacles.”
“Trailblazers have the personal qualities of strength, courage, and resilience causing them to be relentless in their pursuits and embracing and learning from failures or setbacks,” she explains. “They are prepared so that they can perform their personal best to deliver what’s required of them.”
The New England quarterback aims for his fifth Super Bowl title on Sunday. And though he has been a star player and celebrity for more than a decade, it’s always worth noting that he wasn’t drafted until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. A whopping 198 players were selected before Brady. In the 2001 season, after starter Drew Bledsoe was injured, Brady stepped in, and eventually led the team to its first Super Bowl victory.
CEO lesson: Never underestimate the underdog. Matthew Brodsky writes about this for Wharton Magazine, including research and a lecture by professor Samir Nurmohamed that centered on this idea: “How can leaders and organizations motivate employees to succeed when others aren’t expecting them to?”
“When an underdog narrative is used to motivate individuals, it’s powerful stuff,” Brodsky writes. “It could lead to highly motivated individuals who come up with innovative strategies to gain results (versus ‘fat and happy’ employees who just follow tired processes to maintain the status quo). Underdog employees may tend to be more creative in their problem-solving and more committed in their efforts.”
The former Tampa Bay and Atlanta running back has had a tremendous impact off the football field. For 19 years, he has led Homes for the Holidays, which helps single parents acquire housing. Here’s how Nancy Armour describes it for USA Today: “Dunn and his foundation partner with community organizations — often Habitat for Humanity — to identify single parents who are already working toward home ownership. In addition to sweat equity in building or rehabbing their homes, there is a required class in financial literacy as well as one on being a new homeowner, which covers everything from dealing with homeowners’ associations to how to repair drywall. Then he taps into a long list of sponsors to furnish and stock the homes.”
CEO lesson: Give back. Being charitable can have a positive impact on all involved. Maynard Webb stresses the importance of this in a story for Forbes, writing, “Whether you are starting a company or starting at a company, leading an organization or managing a department, you can make it your business to serve others.” Among his tips on how to get started: start out with holiday charity drives, let employees spend time volunteering, and use charitable efforts to “unite the company” with team-building exercises.