Thomas E. Jackiewicz, MPH, serves as senior vice president and chief executive officer for Keck Medicine of USC. He is responsible for oversight of the university’s clinical activities at Keck Hospital of USC, USC Norris Cancer Hospital, USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, and more than 40 affiliated clinics throughout Southern California and the USC Care Medical Group, the physicians practice. Inspired by Super Bowl season, he recently shared his perspective on leadership in this essay originally published on LinkedIn.
Leaders often work behind the scenes, and may rarely feel like their efforts deserve the roar of the crowd, high fives and a Gatorade shower. We do, however, look up to football coaches and players for their very public leadership expertise. Perhaps because their successes and failures in achieving a singular mission are so fully on display, we feel a kinship with their leadership challenges on and off the field.
Think Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells (“The Big Tuna”), Bill Walsh, and Chuck Noll. Winning for them was a calculated leadership process — goal setting, planning, building cohesiveness and trust, helping individuals grow and excel, continuous learning and improvement, with occasional clever schemes tossed into the mix.
As executives, we should look to the coaches of these exceptional teams for guidance on how to lead successful organizations. I am a lifelong fan of the New York Giants. I suffered through the brutal 1970s, and basked during four Super Bowl victories. I have faithfully tuned into their games, read the pre- and post-game analyses, and watched the coach and player interviews.
While sports talk is often draped in painful clichés, amazing leadership and management insights emerge as well. Here are my 12 favorite leadership tips from the NFL.
1. Remember game prep is everything. According to many coaches, games are won or lost in the film room where players analyze the opposing team’s previous games to eliminate surprises and prepare for their game. The same is true with leadership. Leadership isn’t winging it as you bounce from one meeting to the next. You must always prepare for the next day. I carry a small notebook and write notes from each meeting I have. I review it each evening as I go over my calendar for the next day. I never go into a meeting or a day unprepared.
“There were other players who were more talented, but there was no one who could out-prepare me. And because of that, I have no regrets.” Peyton Manning
2. Script the first seven plays. A famous coach said he always scripted the first seven offensive plays for each game, and then had the team practice them to minimize variation. The goal was to get a jump on the opponent and score early. For every major initiative I work on, I think through my first seven moves to ensure momentum and, hopefully, success. This is where game prep becomes actionable.
“The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” Vince Lombardi
3. Let the play develop. Inexperienced players are overly enthusiastic and tend to rush into the action. Experienced players are patient and focused, and they have fine-tuned instincts about timing. If you are prepared and experienced, patience truly is a virtue. Let your team do their part, watch the action and as the play develops, apply your leadership skills when the timing is right.
“A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.” Ara Parseghian
4. Follow your blockers and run to daylight. Successful football plays are designed to put teammates out in front to block defenders so that key players can run to daylight. This rule applies to leadership strategy too. Key members of your team must be out in front of you, clearing the path for new initiatives and ensuring obstacles that could derail initiatives are addressed and removed with speed.
“Football is blocking and tackling. Everything else is mythology.” Vince Lombardi
“Run to daylight.” Vince Lombardi
5. Understand game speed. The expression game speed refers to the fact that even though you are prepared and well-practiced, everything moves twice as quickly when initiatives go live. Be prepared, be patient, but be ready to move quickly and seize opportunities.
“Life is TEN percent what happens to you, and NINETY percent how you respond to it.” Lou Holtz
6. “We’re great between the 20s.” The phrase “being great between the 20s” carries a large dose of irony because being great between the 20s means your offense can easily move the ball from your 20-yard line to the opponent’s 20-yard line, but is unable to score a touchdown. This is a shortcoming in football and within organizations. Initiatives and plans progress but are ultimately not fully executed. Many reasons and excuses can be cited for the inability to follow through, but the harsh reality is that while progress is great, to be successful you have to execute well and score.
“I think the great part about what I do is that there’s a scoreboard. At the end of every week, you know how you did. You know how well you prepared. You know whether you executed your game plan. There’s a tangible score.” Tom Brady
7. Call audibles when necessary. Quarterbacks call audibles when they are on the scrimmage line and realize the play they called in the huddle won’t be successful given the defensive formation. The leadership equivalent to an audible is a mid-course correction. Successful initiatives typically require a willingness to step back from initial plans and adapt to new developments.
“Peyton Manning’s goal isn’t to get the perfect play, it’s to get out of a bad play.” Mike Chappell
8. Put your players in the best position to win. For me, no truer words have been spoken about leadership. As a leader, you must understand the capabilities of your team — their strengths and weaknesses — and create a plan to maximize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. One major reason many initiatives reach the 20-yard line and never score is that the leadership team was not properly positioned for success.
“I have learned over the years how to hold a team together. How to lift some men up, how to calm others down, until finally they’ve got one heartbeat, together, a team.” Bear Bryant
9. Learn how to play well in a broken pocket. A broken pocket occurs when defensive pass rushers beat their blockers, pressure the quarterback and force him to scramble and improvise to salvage the play. Two truisms I have learned about leadership are 1) the pocket always breaks down, and 2) improvising at game speed separates good leaders from great leaders.
“Others follow you based on the quality of your actions rather than the magnitude of your declarations.” Bill Walsh
10. Quiet the crowd. During games, teams try to quiet the crowd and maintain focus. Leaders must also quiet their organization and keep organizational focus on their goals. Leading an organization through significant change over the last few years, I understand how noisy the crowd can be. It is important to reduce the noise, maintain focus, and minimize distraction. The “crisis du jour” may distract you, but maintaining a focus on your priorities will get you over the goal line.
“Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control.” Tom Landry
11. Keep in mind you are what the record says you are. Former NFL head coach Bill Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are.” I have heard many excuses for missing goals — our patients are sicker, we are understaffed, the dog ate my homework. The bottom line is excuses are excuses. Are you accountable, or aren’t you?
“Blame nobody, expect nothing, do something.” Bill Parcells
12. Remember to just win, baby. When asked what he told his team prior to playing in the Super Bowl (which they won handily), Al Davis said the memorable line, “Just win, baby.” Never let perfect get in the way of good enough. Accomplish your goal and move on to the next one. It is easy to get caught up in the statistics, but in the end, play to win and be successful. Success may be feel ragged and the process of getting there looks ugly, but the taste of success is just as sweet.
“Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” Vince Lombardi
Football, for me, is a metaphor for life and business. Unlike baseball, which is more predictable and even paced, football is strategic and, at times, chaotic. Leadership must be exhibited for every play on game day, but also during the long hours of strategizing, practicing and conducting post-game debriefs. We are inspired when our favorite teams masterfully deliver last minute magic, and frustrated when they fall short. But win or lose, they come back the next week for another opportunity to succeed. As leaders of organizations whose mission is often as demanding and stressful as winning an NFL football game, we should remember the lessons we see in action every Sunday.