Lessons on Warmth in Leadership From NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
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This past weekend, the NFL held its annual draft virtually on Zoom, largely conducted from the basement of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s home. Despite trepidation from many corners, it was a huge success, with record ratings and almost universal praise from commentators and those on social media. And that success is largely due to the NFL’s decision to dial up the warmth — authenticity, humility and vulnerability — in a way that helped them better connect with fans this year. The NFL's virtual draft venture offers valuable lessons for business leaders of every stripe about how to better connect with colleagues, employees and potential clients.
The NFL draft has become famous for the raucous energy from the live crowds who sit for hours to erupt in either cheers or boos when their team's pick is announced. All the while, there's one shared target of their boos: the commissioner himself. This year, the NFL didn’t have the ability to go live and many (myself included) feared the lack of energy would make for a dull event. But the opposite happened — without the energy from the live crowd, the participants doubled down on connecting with fans in a more intimate way, and it paid off.
Authenticity is key to likeability
It started at the top, with the notoriously cold commissioner himself. Watching Roger Goodell host the draft from his basement felt very much like one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats. Without the podium and commercialized antics, fans and viewers got to see a side of the buttoned-up Mr. Goodell that he’d never shown before. Fans saw that he’s actually a human being, with a wife and children and a basement! In fact, he gave fans a pre-draft tour of his basement and showed his favorite old chair he’s sat in to watch games for the past 30 years. He stood to announce the first round picks, but by the later rounds, he was nearly slumbering in the old chair. The man was tired — it’s a long draft — but fans have never seen a tired Roger Goodell before. That authenticity increased his likeability more than a plastered-on smile ever could.
Goodell also showed vulnerability by playfully embracing his reputation. Every year, a hallmark of the draft is the crowd unanimously booing the commissioner, and this year, Goodell booed himself in with an audience track. He even helped raise money for the health crisis, with longtime league sponsor Bud Light pledging to contribute $1 for every fan who used the hashtag #Boothecommish. That seemingly small gesture also demonstrated the Commissioner’s humility: He let us know that he knows he’s not the fan favorite, but he wore it proudly. By acknowledging his own less-than-stellar reputation, he showed that he’s attentive to the fans, almost saying, “You don’t like me, and I hear you.” By acknowledging their distaste for him, he was able to exhibit a kind of warmth previously inaccessible to him.
Relatability leads to connection
The uncharacteristic warmth of the virtual draft wasn’t just due to Goodell showing a different side of himself, but to the players as well. This year’s draftees were supposed to be taken to the stage in gondolas with the Bellagio fountains of Las Vegas in the background. Not many fans can relate to that level of opulence. They can, however, relate to draftees at home, crying and hugging their parents after fulfilling one of their life-long dreams. The players had their guard down and weren’t “on” as can often happen to any of us in unfamiliar surroundings. When someone is “on,” it often creates a barrier to true connection.
In my book, I share three qualities for success in any endeavor: the authority you exhibit, the warmth you convey and the energy you bring out in others. It’s important to recognize how they work in tandem with each other and how one trait can help you soar if another is absent. For the NFL, everything is about authority — exhibited by its famous logo “Protecting the shield.” Player celebrations have been curtailed so much in recent years that the league has taken on the nickname "the NFL, No Fun League." And the draft is usually serious business, heightened by the live crowd's intense energy.
The virtual draft couldn’t have been more different from the authoritative, raucous draft fans have come to expect. It was so unexpectedly raw and revealing that it left many fans hoping it never goes back to the old antiseptic ways. Unfiltered moments, like when we saw Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s dog, or a newly drafted player’s mom grab the phone out of his girlfriend’s hands, or the online commentators tweeting about the different personal items in the announcers' homes, brought a level of intimacy and warmth that all the sports leagues should try to incorporate in future productions.
Everyone wants to be understood
There is a lesson in this for everyone. Depending on where you are in your career, you might want to ask yourself if you lack warmth, because it is perhaps the most underappreciated tool in the leadership toolkit.
In her brilliantly funny book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb recounts counseling a couple in which the wife turned to her husband and said:
“You know what three words would be more romantic than I love you?"
"You look beautiful?" he tried.
"No," his wife said, "I understand you.”
That’s the essence of warmth — the sense of connection that springs from being understood and making the effort to understand. It’s not just a crucial factor in romantic love; it’s imperative in all successful relationships, including those in business. It’s where trust comes from, and its absence or presence can have tremendous implications across all areas of life.
Are you willing to show humility and vulnerability, and show more of your humanity to a colleague, boss, employee or potential client? When communicating with people, are you almost always “on,” or do you let your guard down enough to create a connection? Are you open and accessible, and allow yourself to be vulnerable? Do you let people see the real you, or at least a glimpse? If not, perhaps you should take a cue from Roger Goodell. Settle into your old comfy chair, take off your proverbial face mask and let the world in. You might be surprised by all the great things you get “drafted” into.