3 Leadership Takeaways from HBO's 'Hard Knocks: Detroit Lions'

Here are some ready-to-use leadership themes from 'Hard Knocks: Detroit Lions' that managers can implement today to help keep their teams more engaged.

By Dr. Santor Nishizaki • Sep 12, 2022


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As an avid NFL fan and fantasy football player, I look forward to HBO's Hard Knocks year, which provides an unfiltered all-access look at what it takes to make it in the National Football League. When I found out this year's show was going to cover the Detroit Lions, I was disappointed because they only won three games last season and currently have the most prolonged playoff win drought in the NFL.

Within the first 10 minutes of watching the season premiere, I had to admit that this was one of the most entertaining episodes of Hard Knocks I've seen in the last five years. In addition to being hilarious and heartfelt, I saw some ready-to-use leadership themes that managers can implement today to help keep their teams more engaged. Here they are below:

Related: 7 Leadership Lessons From Netflix's Hit Show 'Cobra Kai'

1. Vulnerability

I instantly became a fan of this team due to the authenticity and vulnerability coaches showed toward each other and their players. For example, Coach Dan Campbell wasn't afraid to show his emotions about how much he cared about his team and their safety by having the players in full pads early in training camp to help give them a competitive advantage during the season. In the same scene, running back, Jamaal Williams, was at the point of tears while giving a passionate speech to his team. He encouraged them to remember last year's record (3-13) and to use it to motivate them this year. Williams showed how much he cares about his team and told them to "remember your why."

Being vulnerable at work has a lot of upsides: It creates trust, boosts creativity and productivity, and it creates a safer workplace. Here are some ways to be more vulnerable with your team:

Related: 8 Leadership Lessons From ESPN's Documentary, 'The Last Dance'

2. Belonging

In one part of the show, linebackers coach and former player Kelvin Sheppard considered cutting his hair, because he thought coaches were supposed to look a certain way. Head coach Dan Campbell said, "No," and encouraged him to be his authentic self. Campbell's response helps create a culture of belonging that allows people to show up as they are.

Studies found that a culture of belonging can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. Here are some ways to create a culture of belonging:

  • Listen to people's ideas, and empower them (inclusion)

  • Provide compassion, and support your workers through rough patches

  • Let people show up to the office or Zoom/Teams as their best and authentic selves

Related: 5 Powerful Leadership Lessons to Learn From Star Wars's Boba Fett

3. Lead by example

One of my favorite parts of this episode was when Coach Campbell did the "up-downs" drill with the defensive players to start practice. Campbell is a former NFL player, and so is his coaching staff — totaling over 80 years of NFL-playing experience. I'm sure the players were thinking during the "up-downs" drill: "If my retired coach can do it, what's my excuse?"

After interviewing over 100 millennial leaders for my next book (a how-to guide for first-time and emerging leaders), one piece of advice they gave to the next generation of leaders was to not delegate something you wouldn't do yourself. Nothing wrecks a leader's credibility more than having a boss who doesn't put in the work needed to be successful.

Consistently leading by example sets the tone for your team and shows that you know what you're doing and are willing to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work alongside them. Also, leading by example helps your team respect your expertise and not want to let you down because you're working very hard (commonly known as reciprocity). Here are three tips for leading by example:

  • Be consistent: A lack of consistency can lead to significant employee turnover.

  • Develop your team: If your team cannot perform at your level, help develop them by providing coaching and training.

  • It's not all about you: Coach Campbell didn't do EVERY drill with his players, and his main goal was to motivate and get them to play at their highest potential, not beat them in "up-downs."

Right now is a tough time for leaders due to high inflation, workers quitting or on the verge of quitting their jobs, layoffs, a global pandemic and much more. Leaders must step up their game by being vulnerable and authentic, creating a culture of belonging and leading by example. The organizations and leaders who master these themes will win the war for great talent and best serve all stakeholders. Whether you're a football fan or not, I encourage you to tune in to Hard Knocks; you may gain a leadership tip or two!

Dr. Santor Nishizaki

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor


Dr. Santor Nishizaki is the author of Working with Gen Z: A Handbook to Recruit, Retain, and Reimagine the Future Workforce After Covid-19, and his work on Gen Z has been featured in the WSJ, Forbes, CNN.com, and more. He is a Ph.D. professor at Pepperdine University and CEO of the MCG.

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