One of the best things about leadership principles is their wide applicability. You can find beneficial leadership life-lessons in sports, business, politics and throughout history. These maxims can be adapted to your personal life, home, church or enterprise. In my new Become a Category of One in-house workshop, I use Vince Lombardi’s success with the Green Bay Packers as a case study in how not to just become the best in your business category, but to create a different category with only you in it. Regardless of whether or not you like football or know anything about it, you can quickly advance results in your organization by applying these five basic, widely applicable principles from Coach Lombardi.
First, some background: Vince Lombardi spent only ten years as a professional head football coach, yet left the game a legend with a record of 105-35-6. He never had a losing season despite inheriting a team with a prior year record of 1-10-1. His playoff record was 9-1, including three straight league championships, (5 in 7 years) and the first two Super Bowl wins. He retired from coaching in Green Bay but returned shortly thereafter as coach for the Washington Redskins, turning around another losing team before he died of cancer in 1970. The following success principles are transferrable and useful in building high performance business cultures.
1. Lesson One: Be crystal clear about what you expect.
Vince Lombardi was a taskmaster for accountability. He was able to excel in this leadership responsibility because he was very clear about what he expected in the first place. Lombardi would begin each year with this expectation: There are planes, trains and buses leaving out of Green Bay every day, and if you don’t perform for me you’re going to find yourself on one of them. I suppose the overly-sensitive type might feel his approach was harsh, but I believe it was fair. Harshness would have been not setting this standard and then kicking someone off the team because they didn’t perform. We’re all wise to remember that ambiguity is the enemy of accountability, and that we cannot do an effective job of holding people accountable until we clearly define what you expect from them in the first place.
In addition to establishing clear performance standards for each player, Lombardi coined what is probably the most famous mission statement in sports: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. No player could doubt what the Packer’s purpose was, or could mistakenly believe that his own personal effort or excellence substituted for winning the game as a team.
In-the-mirror check-up: Do your people know exactly what is expected? Is your mission as clearly defined as Lombardi’s?
2. Lesson Two: Let people know where you stand, and let them know where they stand with honest feedback.
Coach Lombardi created a culture of candor where solid performances were reinforced, and poor performances were confronted; quickly in both cases. Notice the balance of positive reinforcement and tough love in this feedback to talented, but sometimes lazy linebacker Lee Roy Caffey.
Lee Roy, if you cheat on the practice field, you’ll cheat in the game. If you cheat in the game, you’ll cheat the rest of your life. I’ll not have it…Lee Roy, you may think I criticize you too much, a little unduly at times. You have the size, the strength, the speed, the mobility, everything in the world necessary to be a great football player except one thing. YOU’RE TOO D*** LAZY.
In-the-mirror check-up: Can you unwaveringly state that your people know on a consistent basis exactly where they stand, and where you stand on performance issues?
3. Lesson Three: Lombardi took clear expectations and applied tough-love accountability to turn around losing teams and sustain winning teams.
Contrary to the contentions of those promoting today’s failed self-esteem movement, it is never harsh to hold someone accountable. What’s truly harsh is permitting team members to under-achieve, or fail, on your leadership watch because you don’t care enough about them to confront them about performance. Behavioral science teaches that if you want to change a behavior you must change the consequence for that behavior. In other words, somewhere along the line there’s got to be an “or else” for failing to perform as expected or the errant performance will continue. However, it’s important to remember that tough love accountability isn’t a license to become disrespectful or to get personal. Notice Lombardi’s approach with a wayward Max McGee. He practiced the principle of loving the performer, while hating the performance:
After catching Max McGee sneaking out after curfew: Max, I said that will cost you five hundred dollars and if you go out again, it’ll cost you a thousand. Max, if you can find anything worth sneaking out for a thousand dollars, call me and I’ll go with you.
In-the-mirror check-up: Whether you’re turning around a losing team or trying to sustain your success, are you executing the expectations + accountability discipline formula to win?
4. Lesson Four: Lombardi’s teams were brilliant in the basics.
Under Lombardi the Packers had only eight primary plays in their playbook. However, they executed these handful of plays with such excellence that they rolled over teams who were well aware of what plays they’d face. In Lombardi’s words: “It’s hard to be aggressive when you’re confused.” Lombardi knew that the Packers wouldn’t have to do anything extraordinary to win football games; but they would have to do the ordinary things extraordinarily well. He understood that ordinary people doing what others aren’t willing to do can produce extraordinary results.
Each job position in your organization has a handful of non-negotiable disciplines that, if performed consistently well each day, will take the team to a higher level. As a leader it’s your responsibility to coach each team member to identify and execute their handful, and to hold them accountable for doing so consistently.
In-the-mirror check-up: Have you identified for yourself, and helped your team to identify, the handful of basic disciplines that must be executed each day for greater success in each position?
5. Lesson Five: Lombardi treated each player as a unique individual; not like another head in a herd of cattle.
Lombardi knew you had to know people to move people. He often said, “My job is to find forty different ways to move forty different men.” He also knew that not everyone had earned or deserved the same opportunities, discretion or rewards. His declaration that “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.” rocks the world of today’s mental lightweights supporting the disastrous and dishonest philosophy that “everyone gets a trophy.” Lombardi customized his motivational approach to fit the motivational trigger of each man on his team:
In-the-mirror check-up: Do you know what moves and most motivates each team member? Keep in mind that motivations can change over time.
Lombardi’s leadership was so proven and renowned that when he was hired to coach the Redskins, Hall of Famers like Sam Huff came out of retirement to play for him, validating the Law of Attraction which states that you attract into your organization what you are, not what you want. Vince Lombardi’s approach to bringing the best out of players was validated by the fact that 13 of the players on the 1-10-1 team he inherited went out to become All-Pros under Lombardi’s leadership. What a lesson for us all that sometimes the good people we’re looking for are right under our noses, but are diminished by poor leadership.
Lombardi was a believer in an “earn and deserve” culture and was sickened by the growing signs of entitlement he saw in society. One of his last speeches before dying of cancer was to a group of businessmen in Dayton, Ohio in 1970. This excerpt suffices to demonstrate that not only was Lombardi a genius in his own time, he had a clear view of where society’s tendency to pamper people would lead:
I find it increasingly difficult to be tolerant of a society that seems to have sympathy only for the misfit, only for the maladjusted, only for the criminal, only for the loser. Have sympathy for them, certainly. Help them if you can, certainly. But it’s time to cheer for, to stand up for and to pat the back of the doer; the achiever; the person who sees a problem and does something about it; the winner.