The New Way to Win Super Bowls: Leadership Lessons of the NFL’s Cutting Edge Coaches

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BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS

From left: Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and his brother, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, appear at a joint press conference ahead of the NFL's Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, La., Feb. 1, 2013.

49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens Coach John Harbaugh may have captured the world’s attention in the run-up to this Super Bowl because they’re brothers who hail from a coaching dynasty. But there’s a much better reason to watch them: their distinctly 21st-century approach to leadership.

From politics to business to sports, there exists a growing understanding that what it means to be in charge has changed, and the best new leaders are adapting their approaches accordingly — even in a traditionally hierarchical sport like football.

The Harbaugh brothers are part of a surprising vanguard of elite NFL coaches who hardly resemble the screaming field generals of the past, perhaps best embodied by the legendarily tyrannical Vince Lombardi. Instead, this generation’s 21st-century grid-iron leader is defined not by yelling at players but by listening to them; not by wielding authority over players, but by flexing power through them; and not by creating separate rules of engagement for the field, but by treating pro football as inseparable from life.

Take a closer look at the past six Super Bowl-winning coaches. NY Giants Coach Tom Coughlin famously transformed in 2007 from an old-school, military-style coach to a leader who listens to his players (and their personal challenges). This shift helped Coughlin save his job and win the Big One (and four years later, another one). Former Colts Coach Tony Dungy wrote an autobiography, Quiet Strength, in which he shared “principles of a winning life.” Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin and Green Bay Packers Coach Mike McCarthy coolly exude similar principles. This trend is not unique to football or the U.S., either, showing up among coaches of soccer, cricket, the Olympics, and other elite sports around the world.

Why are winning coaches changing their behavior? Because our world has transformed. And football provides us a great metaphor for how our leadership needs to change with it.

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Head coaches, and CEOs, are no longer in charge the way they once were.  In a world that is constantly growing more interconnected and interdependent, we are all leaders, with the capacity to spark a movement, kick-start a consumer revolt, defend or denounce our teams or companies, lend ideas to a new ground-breaking project, or innovate with a few simple clicks of a mouse. In this new world, for example, even a 9-year-old cafeteria-lunch blogger in Scotland, like Martha Payne, can attract millions of social media followers and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fortify the diets of hungry children in Malawi by complaining about her school lunches online.

It may seem ironic that NFL football coaches understand the new kind of leadership required for this world better than most. After all, professional sports is a realm where you aim to be bigger, stronger, and faster than the other team so that you can outscore them; and one where multi-million dollar paychecks are supposed to generate the kind of performance that results in wins, no matter what.

But increasingly, ubiquitous information makes it impossible to out-perform competitors in traditional ways. Our opponents can study our game tapes immediately and rob us of our tactical advantages. Instead, we need to out-behave the competition. And that, more than anything, is how the Harbaughs did it this year: They created locker room cultures built to withstand the rigors of a long season with many unexpected twists and turns. These cultures produced inspired players who connected, matured (think of the Niners rookie QB, nurtured carefully by Jim Harbaugh), and collaborated to overcome the long odds of getting to the final game.

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In football, as in life, bonuses and punishments no longer suffice. So how do you get peak performance? How do you get people to play (and work) hard? How do you get people to go to bed before curfew? How do you build the solidarity that wins a game or accomplish any difficult task? As power shifts to individuals, leadership itself must shift with it. As we all embrace our new roles as 21st-century leaders, we can:

Ground our work in shared values, guided by principles. John Harbaugh has described the keys to his success as “having a shared ownership of everything we do. It’s never been ‘my way or the highway’ here. But the principles, they are rock solid. Like we say to our team, principles are written in stone, methods are not. We will not back down from our principles.”

Treat work as inseparable from life. Our work and personal and lives are no longer different spheres governed by different rules. That’s why Jim Harbaugh sits down with his players and coaches at lunches and discusses family and other parts of their lives off the field.

Abolish one-way conversations.  Whether we’re talking to people or texting, we need to listen. Tom Coughlin regularly huddles up with an 11-player “leadership council” to gauge teammates’ needs and concerns.

Inspire others to aspire to significance.  Instead of trying to extract or coerce results out of others, successful leaders connect with what is most valuable in others, catalyzing peak performance in a principled and sustainable way. Listen to the players when they accept the Lombardi Trophy Sunday; regardless of which team wins, the players will point to the meaning that their coach instilled in his system.

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Regardless of who we root for on Sunday, we ought to focus on more than which brother’s team wins and which loses. Instead, we should remember the unique, 21st-century-appropriate way each Harbaugh teaches, connects, collaborates with, and inspires their players to aspire to significance – and why that kind of championship matters far more than the score.

DOV SEIDMAN’s career has focused on how companies and their people can operate in both principled and profitable ways. He is the author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything and founder and CEO of LRN, which has helped shape winning organizational cultures inspired by sustainable values in hundreds of companies. Fortune called Dov the “hottest advisor on the corporate virtue circuit;” Economic Times named him a “Top 60 Global Thinker of the Last Decade;” and TIME named him a “Game Changer.” He’s on Twitter @DovSeidman

1 comments
RuthNemzoff
RuthNemzoff

Parenting styles as well as leadership styles can benefit from following the new coaching methods. Like Tom Coughlin, parents of emerging adult children may find their children perform better when they listen instead of giving orders and have their children participate in figuring out how best to play the game of life.

Ruth Nemzoff, Author,  Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children 
www.ruthnemzoff.com