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3 lessons that being in the NFL taught me about leadership

It’s not just about commanding orders. It’s about understanding how to cultivate an environment that inspires your team to do their best.

3 lessons that being in the NFL taught me about leadership
[Photo: jhphotos/iStock]

You’ve probably seen many analogies between football and business, but it’s never been more relevant than today. New technologies have changed the modern workplace, which impacts how we work in multiple ways. Like football, conditions often shift quickly, and there is more significant pressure to advance in a shorter amount of time. Employees, like players, must be nimble and agile and able to adjust to changing needs and priorities. This is no easy feat because you’re also dealing with a company’s constantly evolving goals.

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In my work as Chief Programs Officer at mobile coaching platform BetterUp, one of the biggest challenges I hear from business leaders is developing teams that excel in the workplace. My experiences in the NFL have given me insights about leadership that I think are important to leading teams and managing people, especially as the world of work keeps changing. Here are a few that I believe apply today.

1. Lead with values and a culture of accountability

One of the greatest barriers to success—in football and the workplace—is a siloed organization. In football, this could be a team where players on the offense don’t gel well with the defense. In business, it could mean a team that only cares about getting its job done and fails to consider how their work fits into broader company goals.

Great teams unite around a common set of values and purpose and operate as a whole team. When a team is in alignment, they create a culture of inclusion, empowerment, and accountability, which in turn drives stronger performance.

One example of this on the field is the Los Angeles Rams and head coach Sean McVay. McVay is deliberate and intentional about the values his team stands for and creates a culture of accountability to give them life. He expects alignment with those values and for players to hold each other accountable.

McVay also understands the strengths of his players and designs plays where they can use them. These, among others, are important factors as to why the new Rams coaching staff turned around an underperforming team into a playoff team in one season and reached the Super Bowl in the second season.

2. Look for clutch moments

All leaders need foundational skills, such as the ability to clarify their vision, think critically, give feedback, and be disciplined and reliable. But those qualities alone won’t make a great leader. A great leader needs to be able to inspire others to be their best and keep the organizations cohesive during times of change.

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Great leaders rise as the stakes rise. They go together. In football, there are clutch moments that determine whether your team wins or loses. These often occur when something extraordinary happens in the game—someone makes a mistake, a player gets injured, or time is coming to an end. The way a coach reacts at those times can either bring a team together or divide them.

The same applies to business. Extraordinary moments come to pass, and leaders need to unify the team toward its mission. They might be dealing with losing a deal to a competitor, responding to a product failure, or figuring out how to fulfill a large purchase order from a major customer with an insufficient inventory. A great leader knows how to step up and pull people together.

Great leaders aren’t self-focused or self-protective when the chips are down. Instead, part of the opportunity is about seizing the clutch moment so that it becomes a “psychological resource” to draw upon in the future when they face new challenges. Leaders should realize that extraordinary moments will become landmarks in memory of our “future selves.” The extent of our cohesion will determine whether our future selves believe we can rely on our teammates or not when new challenges are presented.

Being ready for those times takes situational awareness, resilience, optimism, and courage—all skills and mindsets that you can develop through greater learning, practice, and coaching. Look for those moments in your career. Keep your antennas up regardless of your title, and seek those opportunities to lead and unify, rather than divide.

3. Know your people

Great leaders know that they are only as valid as the output of the people around them. The best coaches in football are constantly thinking about how to help their players get better. They focus on understanding the people on their teams, what motivates and drives them, and how best to coach them.

But it’s not enough to do this. As a leader, you need to show your team that you want the best for them. That means listening, empathizing, and seeing things from their point of view. Players—and employees—will give you their best efforts when they know this.

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Great leaders also understand that timing is everything when it comes to coaching people. When a player makes a mistake in the game and comes back to the sideline, a great coach knows that moment is not the time to tell him what he did wrong. Understanding how and when to empower and motivate with feedback—when the player is most “ready” and “willing” to be coached—is an essential leadership skill.

Being a leader today—both on the field and in the workplace—demands not just knowing how the game works but knowing how your people work. It requires understanding how to unite them and help them rise during the challenges and the opportunities. Ultimately, effective leadership requires you to understand human behavior and to create an environment that allows (and inspires) your team to perform at the highest level.


Dr. Damian Vaughn is the Chief Programs Officer of BetterUp.

This article has been updated to clarify the author’s point of view about leaders dealing with challenging circumstances.

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