Leadership Lessons From the Most Successful Football Coaches of All Time

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These days, you’re more likely to find me in a conference room with an iPad than on the field in football pads, but I’ve played and watched enough football to know that you never reach legendary status without winning beliefs.

The following three coaches have led their teams to a combined eight Super Bowl victories. I consider them among the all-time greatest, not just for their sports’ acumen but because their prized principles continue to shape my business philosophy. If you want to lead your team to success, take a lesson (or two) from the best of the best.

1. Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers

Lesson: Build a culture that values the behaviors and beliefs that lead to victories as much as the victories themselves.

There’s a plague in the National Football League and everybody knows it. Coaches, fans and players recognize that few NFL teams win the Super Bowl back to back. Only eight teams have done it, with the Seahawks striving to become the ninth. This is because of a mental deficiency (called success disease) that makes individuals and teams think that once they reach the top, they don’t need to improve any more.

On the other hand, a team that fights for every victory has a winning team culture. For the legendary Bill Walsh, it was the major goal and challenge of his career. “The toughest thing I ever had to do,” he explains, “was get my team to overcome success disease.”

2. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Lesson: Praise team players and retrain the ones whose individualism hinders overall goals.

The team mostly likely to win on any given Sunday is one that is best prepared, well conditioned and most cohesive. With his tactical focus and emphasis on team, Coach Belichick demands a high standard. “For a team to accomplish their goal,” he said, “everybody’s got to give up a little bit of their individuality.”

Under Belichick’s leadership, team players are the examples to follow, even if they are not those with the best records. A little individualism is good, until it gets in the way. Then, people must be retrained to think and act in the best interest of the team.

3. Tom Landry, Dallas Cowboys

Lesson: Make the connection between today’s behaviors and tomorrow’s goals.

You don’t lead the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowls and 20 back-to-back winning seasons without making a habit of doing exactly what you don’t want to do. Tom Landry recognized the importance of this virtue, and he defined leadership as being able to get others to do the same. He said, “Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do [so they can] achieve what they want to achieve.”

Ask most middle schoolers if they want to do calisthenics every day, and they’ll look at you like you have three heads. Ask the same kids if they’d like to be record-setting Olympians, and the response will be quite different. Making the connection that today’s behaviors lead to making (or missing) tomorrow’s goals is crucial to effective leadership.

Just like the best football teams, you have worked hard to get where you are. But only one team gets to wear the Super Bowl ring each year.