Friday Night Bytes: Leadership Lessons From Coaching Football

Business can learn a lot from football, says Billy Bosworth, the DataStax CEO who once stared down Brett Favre.

Technology and football. These have been the twin faces of Billy Bosworth’s life, CEO of DataStax, a data platform that competes with the likes of Oracle and counts Netflix among its major clients. From childhood through school and to the present day, Bosworth has pursued both passions, with each informing the other. “It’s an interesting double life,” he says.

Bosworth was born in a small steel town outside of Pittsburgh called Weirton, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. “The town was built literally around the steel mill,” says Bosworth; its street actually passes through the mill. Both of Bosworth’s parents worked the mill; his father as a manager, his mother as a “tin flopper." At its peak, Weirton Steel employed about a third of the town’s 35,000 residents.

Billy Bosworth and his parents

But as Bosworth was growing up, the prospects for work in the mill seemed less stable. In the mid '80s, the steel industry was in decline. “I remember my dad telling me the exact words, ‘You are not going to work in the mill,’” says Bosworth. And Bosworth’s dad had an idea of what might be his son’s ticket out of Weirton: football. “Maybe you’ll get a scholarship,” he said.

It was a long shot. Bosworth didn’t even play football till his sophomore year of high school; his junior year, he failed to make varsity. But over the summer between his junior and senior years, Bosworth practiced hard. That fall, says Bosworth, his coach pulled him into his office and showed him the lineup of starting players on the varsity team. Bosworth saw his name. “Do you know who’s gonna take you out of that spot?” he coach asked. “I guess you,” said Bosworth. “Nope: you. You’re the only one,” his coach replied.

“I’ll be doggone if it didn’t work,” recalls Bosworth. He soon pulled off the extraordinarily rare feat of earning a scholarship--to the University of Louisville--on only one season of varsity football. He went on to play a distinguished college career; his second-to-last year, the team went 10-1-1. The one loss was against Southern Mississippi, whose quarterback pulled off a last-minute upset. “The kid had a goofy name we couldn’t pronounce,” Bosworth recalls. “We called him Fav-ray.”

Bosworth shared some business lessons he's distilled from a life full of football.

Play to the Whistle

That loss to Brett Favre’s team is one Bosworth won’t forget soon. What did it teach him? “Play to the whistle. Play to the buzzer. Play to the final, final gun. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t count deals before they’re in; don’t count a product release before it ships. You have to play till zero’s on the clock.”

The converse is true, too, he says. Defeatism is just as bad as complacency. “You never give up. If you’re behind, you keep swinging. You never know.”

Communicate--Always

Bosworth was an offensive lineman, and especially looked up to his offensive line coach, Danny Hope. “He was such a great teacher. He taught me not just about football, but about how I carry myself as a man, how I carry myself in life.”

An offensive line is made up of five members who need to act as one. “Quite often, four of you are doing something great, but if one of you messes up, then the play is blown up,” Bosworth explains. Hope was trying to drive this point home, and one day became frustrated. “He said, ‘You know what? If all you knuckleheads would just be wrong together in the same way, we’d have a chance! But when you quit talking to each other at the line of scrimmage, I don’t got a prayer.'”

Hope was making a point about the need for constant communication: “‘The five of you, at least if you’re doing the same thing--even if it’s not the play I drew up--we have a chance.’”

And so in business, Bosworth has come to realize. “So many times in business, even though you’re doing 90-95% of things right, one thing’s out of alignment... and suddenly the whole thing blows up. You’ve got to keep communication open, especially in a startup.”

Teams Within a Team

A football team is really a team of teams, says Bosworth. You have the offensive linemen, who might be 6' 6", 350 pounds, and often with “a very blue collar identity--they bring their lunch bucket to work, they’re not craving the spotlight, they take pride in a job well done.” These guys share the field with the more ostentatious wide receivers, smaller, relatively less bulky, much more swift, and often in it for the glory. Both sets of players have to get along, or everything is lost. “That’s why I love football,” says Bosworth. “It’s a game within a game within a game.”

A startup’s the same way, says Bosworth. You’ve got the software engineers, who march to their own drum and often have a self-effacing work ethic like offensive linemen. Next to them you've got the sales reps, completely different personalities, who crave attention, competition. “As a leader, your challenge is, how do I come up with commonalities, with a vision toward a common goal, yet allow them to be independent enough to operate effectively as their own sub-unit?”

Run Hard, Not Long

Bosworth learned lessons from bad coaching, too. Sometimes one of Bosworth’s coaches would mete out punishment wantonly. Bosworth and his teammates devised an expression for such moments: “’You can run me long, but you can’t run me hard.’ What we meant by that was, fine, you can blow the whistle all day long, and I’ll trot out and I’ll trot back, but you can’t crawl into my heart and make me run hard, make me want to run for the right reason.”

From that bad coach Bosworth learned a lesson about the difference between authority and leadership. If you merely have authority over someone, they may go through the motions of obeying you. “But a real leader is somebody who inspires you to do it for the right reasons.”

Bosworth--who in addition to pursuing business, spent many years coaching high school football himself--learned to always at least express why he demanded a certain thing of his team. “I always take the time to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing, instead of just barking out, here’s what it needs to look like.”

Jims and Joes Beat X’s and O’s

When you become a coach yourself--as Bosworth first did in Louisville in the '90s--you enter into a fraternity of other coaches, who may be your rivals on the field, but are dear friends off of it.

Bosworth first made head coach in ’99. “When you’re a new head coach, you have all these delusions of grandeur,” he recalls. You start getting big ideas. You start putting together ambitious playbooks full of fancy plays.

Bosworth put together just such a playbook and took it to an old coach he admired, an octogenarian nicknamed “Coach J.” Bosworth presented his ideas excitedly to Coach J, drawing up the X’s and O’s representing players and their movements, and then fell quiet, eager to hear what Coach J thought.

“He leans back in his chair and takes a drag of his cigarette and says, ‘Let me tell you something. Jims and Joes beat X’s and O’s.'”

What did he mean by that? Bosworth inquired.

“Put some names up on that board beneath those X’s and O’s. Who’s gonna run all those plays?” Bosworth began to think about it, and started mentioning the names of his players. “Okay,” replied Coach J. “Can those kids do what you’re asking them to do? Are they big enough? Strong enough? Fast enough?”

Bosworth thought a moment, then said, “No.”

“Then you might as well erase the whole thing. Until you get Jims and Joes, don’t worry about X’s and O’s.”

It was a lesson about resources, and one Bosworth uses to this day. It irks him when a colleague says that Apple does something, therefore they should do it, too. “You think that happened overnight?” Bosworth will respond.

Forget about being Apple, says Bosworth. You need to know your own mission, your own values, your own culture--and you’ve got to be smart about how your own resources fit your vision.

Jims and Joes beat X’s and O’s. “You gotta be who you are.”

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