Leadership Lessons from the World of Football

 It’s that time of year.   The fall season is upon us, and football consumes us.

Weekends are filled with “Friday Night Lights” at every high school stadium across the country.

Saturdays follow with the excitement of collegiate football where the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is experienced, sometimes within the final minutes of the game, as evidenced by the outcome of our own intrastate rivalry between Iowa State and Iowa this weekend.

Sunday afternoons are typically reserved in my own family for flag football, as my young 9-year old son plays with just as much purpose and passion as an energetic boy can muster, with a true love for the game.

Even now, as we approach the end of our weekend, our family is finishing the day with more football, gathered around the television screen and a serious NFL match-up between the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens.

Football is LIFE this time of year, right?   Even I admit, while I am not the resident expert on football, the game still intrigues me, particularly when I look at it from a leadership perspective.   What exactly sets a good team apart from a great team?

I have come to believe it has to be the coach.   Some of the greatest leaders you will ever meet in life are football coaches.  A coach has the ability to inspire and to motivate a large group of individuals to work together toward the same goal.  A coach is the one that often times has to make the tough calls during do or die moments.  It is the coach that team members listen to, learn from, and strive to give their very best.  Often times the lessons learned from these coaches stay with them for life.   I have decided to compile examples of leadership lessons provided from some of the greats:


lombardiVince Lombardi – Character

Vince Lombardi is considered by most to be the greatest NFL coach ever. His leadership and motivational skills drove the Green Bay Packers to four NFL titles in seven years, an amazing record that has yet to be equaled.


Lesson Learned:   Ask yourself tough questions.

The Lombardi code is founded on the belief that you can only become a leader after developing your character.  Doing so requires self-knowledge.  So, get to know yourself.  You can’t improve upon something you don’t understand. As a leader, you need to examine your career, your habits, your strengths and your weaknesses. What is your purpose in life?


holtzLou Holtz – Relationships

Lou Holtz made his way into football history as a coach by collecting 249 career wins in college football as well as winning the national title at Notre Dame in 1988.   Holtz coached his teams by sharing the mantra of “Your talent determines what you can do.  Your motivation determines how much you are willing to do.  Your attitude determines how well you do it.”


Lesson Learned:   To be the best, you need to have the best people.

Holtz’s leadership style has a lot to do with his upbringing.  He came from a close knit family with few resources.  Because of his upbringing, Holtz did not take anything for granted and worked hard for everything he earned.  Additionally he learned how to respect people and work with them, recognizing that your relationships are the biggest asset you have.   The commonality between Holtz’s leadership philosophy as a coach and in our business world today is that in order to perform the best, you need to have the best people.


vermeilDick Vermeil – Positive Atmosphere

Dick Vermeil served as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 through 1982.  Vermeil was known for his awesome lessons on coaching in the locker room.  After a game, Coach Vermeil would take film from the team’s 10 best offensive plays and the team’s 10 best defensive plays. Then he would show those plays to the team over and over and ask them, “How long will it take us to be this kind of team for the entire game?”


Lesson Learned:  Don’t dwell on the negative.  Take your losses and find the good in them.  What I love about Vermeil’s approach is that it does two things for players on the field, that also apply to how we lead others at work.  First, by pointing out successful execution, you prove that the players have the skills to perform.  It isn’t a question of whether or not they can do it.  Rather, it’s a question of how we can successfully execute more often.

Second, this coaching tactic also motivates players because it shows them that they do have the talent and they can perform.  So if you lead a team, pull out their successes.  Point out when they execute with excellence.  Then ask Vermeil’s question:  “How long will it take us to be this kind of team for the entire game?”


thomasEd Thomas – Leave a Legacy of Leadership

A large poster near the main entrance of Aplington-Parkersburg High School displays a montage of photographs of Ed Thomas, accompanied by three titles attributed to him: The Father, The Teacher and The Leader.  Thomas still ranks 13th all-time among Iowa’s winningest coaches, with 292 victories.   But more so than the victories he accumulated, was the man he simply was and the legacy he left behind.

Aaron Thomas followed his father’s path.  He grew up enamored by his father’s love of his career, witnessed by the son when Ed Thomas drove to school or came home from a hot August football practice.  “I can honestly say about third grade I wanted to go into education and being a coach and an AD, like my dad,” Thomas said. “I felt like my dad never had a job, because he had a passion for what he was doing.”   Brothers Aaron and Todd Thomas both played football for their father. Both became coaches.


Lesson Learned:  It’s About Making a Difference in the Lives of Others.   Aaron has added to his father’s legacy through the Ed Thomas Family Foundation. The group shares a message of faith, family and football, donating money and messages to audiences in Iowa and beyond.  Football was important to Ed Thomas, but a deeper message is engraved on a plaque at the stadium. The quote attributed to him reads: “If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach.”

For Ed Thomas, it wasn’t about winning or state appearances. It was about making a difference in kids’ lives.

These football coaches were the best of the best.  They coached amateur players in high school, college, as well as professional players in the NFL, but the one thing they all have in common is they always got the best out of their team.

What leadership lessons have inspired you in your life?  Continue to connect with www.atwtraining.com for upcoming classes, webinars and e-learning opportunities to unleash your potential and help make you a better leader.

By:  Denise Forney, ATW Training Solutions


Becoming an Employer of Choice

As I write this message, the unemployment rate in the state of Iowa is 3.7%.  Basically, anyone who wants and is able to perform a job is employed.  The 3.7% that aren’t (which is the lowest in some time), have chosen not to work or are unable to perform critical job functions.

So what does this mean to us as leaders of organizations?  To start, it means that recruiting candidates to fill open positions is going to continue to be a challenge.  There just isn’t a strong pool of candidates from which to choose.  Secondly, it means that once we get them hired, we better do everything we can to retain them.

As leaders of organizations we want to become an “Employer of Choice”, but how do we do that?  Here are five things you may want to consider:

  1. Be a Values Based Organization.  This means that you not only identify your corporate values…but you communicate them and most importantly, live them.  Today’s workforce want to belong to organizations that operate and understand a set values that match who they are and how they want to live both personally and professionally.
  2. Know Your Finish Line:  Employees want to feel successful.  This starts with defining what success means, establishing milestones on the journey and celebrating the success of crossing the finish line.  Once accomplished, a new race is identified but think about how it would be to be told to start running and not know how far, how long it should take or anything else.  You can help people be more engaged and motivated by helping them succeed.
  3. Provide a Full Tool Box:  We all know that any job is easier when you have the right tools.  Some of the candidates we bring into our organizations may not have a full set of tools to be successful in their roles.  It’s our job to fill their tool box and guide them in how to use them most appropriately.
  4. Treat People Fairly:  Believe it or not, most people don’t want to be treated as someone special.  Of course, they enjoy it and won’t pass on it, but ultimately they just want to be treated fairly.  Audit your practices to determine if you are giving all parties a fair opportunity to succeed.
  5. Stand for Something:  Today’s workforce wants to be linked to organizations that stand for something bigger than themselves.  Consider what your organization is doing to contribute to your community, your profession and society overall.  If you can share the story of how you are impacting lives it will entice others to join your mission.

Are there other ways to be an employer of choice?  Absolutely.  But you’ve got to start somewhere and you’ve got to start sometime.  Today might just be that day and these ideas might be something you can do.

By Todd McDonald, ATW Training Solutions