THE BLOG

Leadership Lessons From the NFL

10/03/2011 09:54 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2011

These are happy days for professional football fans -- the NFL season is finally in full swing.

After watching just a few games, something struck me: Pro football players seem bigger than ever; they dwarf the reporters who interview them and appear more massive than former football greats.

To confirm my suspicion, I looked up the stats. I was right. The average weight of an NFL player has increased by 10% since 1985. Today's players are also much more athletic. They run faster and hit harder.

This has created a game that is more competitive, faster-paced, and, according to many observers, much more brutal.

Sounds a lot like the current marketplace, doesn't it; fiercely competitive, fast changing, and unforgiving of mistakes.

To compete in this environment, companies need leaders who think and act like professional athletes -- people who work hard at developing the skills and stamina needed to perform at consistently high levels.

What does it take to achieve this level of performance? Three things.

Fundamentals. According to Vince Lombardi, "football is only two things -- blocking and tackling." Disagree if you want, but Lombardi's larger point is spot on -- excellence in football requires solid fundamentals. The best players in the NFL know how to run, block, tackle, and so forth, and they do each very well. This is what gives their team a competitive advantage.

Successful business leaders also possess solid fundamentals. These include business acumen, industry knowledge, and leadership skills. Unfortunately, mastering these competencies is difficult. Unlike athletes, most leaders learn how to lead while on the job, through trial and error. Furthermore, the total set of skills needed by a leader far exceeds that of a professional football player.

Still, it's possible to develop leadership skills through intense personal effort. Some you can learn by attending leadership development programs. However, much of the work must be done individually. As every athlete knows, drilling between practices and games makes all the difference. Here's how.

First, start by engaging your strengths more completely. Second, identify those areas that are holding you back. Self-reflection, 360-assessments, and coaching are good for this. Third, put in the hours you need to become better.

Read case studies. Increase your business knowledge. Take on challenging assignments. Volunteer for leadership positions outside of the work place, such as in community or religious organizations. Here you can develop leadership skills that you can take back to the workplace, all acquired without any professional risk.

Agility. The best professional athletes react quickly and easily when the game changes. They follow the flow of the game, consider their options, and make instantaneous adjustments. And the very best players create change, rather than follow it. In one word, they are agile.

For example, take Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and 11 time Pro-Bowler. He exemplifies agility, especially mental agility and is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL today (notwithstanding his current injury).

Sports writers George Bretherton and Carl Nelson describe a typical Manning play this way: "In the time it takes most people to flip a switch, Manning can calculate what an opposing defense is trying to do, adjust to it, and then release the perfect pass."

How does Manning do it? It comes down to the way he thinks. According to the Colts' quarterback coach, Frank Reich, Manning is successful because "[his] mind is always going, he's formulating a plan, synthesizing all this information that he is hearing, seeing, studying from other people."

Business leaders need a similar level of agility. According to business author Bruna Martinuzzi, the best leaders "... get out of their comfort zone, and learn continuously as a way of adapting to changed surroundings." They think, ask, adjust, and act.

The net result: these leaders produce great results and catapult their company to victory.

Does this describe you? Are you an agile or fixed mindset leader? Do you welcome change or fear it? Do you see change as an opportunity or a threat? Do you respond quickly and effectively to change or do you stall, or worse, make rash decisions? Are you learning new ways to lead or are you stuck in a rut?

Change is inevitable, how we respond to it is not. If you lack nimbleness, resolve to change it. Study, practice, and visualize. This will help you take your performance to the next level.

Focus. Professional athletes are obsessed with winning. How do they go about doing it?

Interestingly, they focus on the task, not the outcome. The best quarterbacks concentrate on executing every play well, not on achieving the long-term goal of winning the game.

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? It's not.

The way to win is through consistent performance, not by obsessing or fantasizing about winning the game. Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach, Chuck Noll sums it up this way: "If you want to win, do the ordinary things better than anyone else does -- day in and day out."

The same principle applies to leadership. Whether you are creating vision and strategy or implementing it, the way to success is through excellent execution -- accomplishing each task well on a daily basis.

Building a company takes a great deal of time and effort and is the culmination of thousands of daily decisions and actions. The better the execution, the greater the chance your company will succeed.

Having long term, strategic goals are important -- they give us direction and motivation.

But goals can become distractions when fear or fantasy keeps us from putting in the hard work needed to accomplish them -- fear paralyzes us or causes us to make self-defeating decisions; fantasy reduces our resolve and performance by convincing our minds we've already arrived.

The best leaders, like the best football players, focus on getting the job done and delivering the goods. They don't just think or talk about it. They do it. And they bring others along with them on their quest.

If you want to become a better leader, approach your work in the same way -- be present in each moment, intent on accomplishing each task well.

Focus on execution and never stop learning and growing as a person and a leader.

Doing these things will help you become a more skilled and effective leader, capable of becoming the best of the best.

Frank Niles is a social scientist, adventurer, and a performance improvement coach. You can learn more about Frank by visiting frankniles.com. He can be contacted at frank@frankniles.com.