by, Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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As another NFL Sunday of football rolls by, I couldn’t help but think about the links between NFL coaches and the study of leadership. While the game of football is action-packed with aggressive competitiveness being displayed throughout every game, it is also a game of schemes, plans, and decision-making processes. The leadership of NFL coaches plays a major role in the success of the team (of course, as any fan can attest, so do the actions of the players), and yet there is no one way of coaching that is most effective. Each head coach implements a different style of leadership, and at times will switch their style of leadership throughout a game. As I pondered the attributes of leadership during this game day, I couldn’t help but try to personify various leadership theories through famous NFL coaches. So here goes my take on leadership:
‘Great Man’ or ‘Hero’ Theory:
Coach: Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers
Great man theory (yes sorry to the women out there, but this old school theory suggested only ‘men’ could be leaders – an idea that has long since been dismissed) was based on great figures in history who were leaders (often on the battlefield). There was no science behind this theory or any justification as to what made these people great leaders, but everybody knew they were great. Vince Lombardi is a legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers and the first coach to win a Super Bowl. Most of us who prop him to the top of all coaches don’t actually base it on any great skill or characteristic, but rather we all just know he was a great leader.
Coach: Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Charismatic leadership is all about rallying followers towards a common goal or vision through an ability to connect with the masses through impassioned speeches and a ‘rah, rah’ attitude. These leaders are visionary and inspirational and have extraordinary effects on their followers who become emotionally attached to the leader. Pete Carroll personifies this style of leadership (both in Seattle and at USC) in his fun-loving ability to connect with his players and rally them to be champions. Watch him jumping around the sidelines and chest-bumping his players to see charismatic leadership on display!
Coach: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Transactional leadership is all about exchanges between the leader and the followers that will help the organization succeed, in the case of an NFL team - win. This is not your ‘rah-rah’ inspirational speech leader, but rather a leader who rewards followers on their performance, always maintains authority, and manages all aspects of the organization to ensure successful production. There is no coach that more personifies this form of leadership than Bill Belichick. Listen to his post-game press conferences and you will get a very good feel that this leader is all about getting the job done without all of the hype and talk. X’s and O’s and performance reign supreme for this transactional leader!
Coach: Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan (formerly San Francisco 49ers)
Transformational leadership focuses on idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. This form of leadership appeals to the follower’s values and goals and sets the entire organization on a path towards a higher shared vision. It doesn’t get muddled in the X’s and O’s, but rather tackles the overall vision of success and is all about organizational change. If you look at Jim Harbaugh’s career path moving from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the 49ers and to Michigan, he has won immediately at every point. He quickly comes in and turns programs around by getting everyone on the road to a higher vision of success than just winning the next game. He engages players with inspirational speeches and influences the entire team and their performance. His famous team slogan after wins at Stanford says it all: “Who’s got it better than us? NOBODY!”
Hopefully this look at four of the major leadership theories through the lens of NFL coaches will help you to better understand the theories of leadership!