‘Shut the Hell Up, I’m the Coach’ : Leadership Lessons from the NFL

They were the best of teams, they were the worst of teams: the difference was leadership. As I listened to Craig Penrose - a retired NFL quarterback - describe his experience playing for the Broncos and the Jets almost 40 years ago, I was struck at the relevance of what he described.

“We won 12 games with the Broncos in one season and went to the Super Bowl,” he said. “I went to the Jets and we won 3 games. If you were to discuss the difference, the Broncos had strong leadership.”

With all the fanfare that sports teams conjure during their picks and drafts, I found it intriguing that the success of a team had little to do with its raw talent. According to Penrose, it had everything to do with how the team was led.

Leadership: Be in command - AND be open

“If you look at the teams who struggle, it is those who question the leadership.” Craig Penrose

“Red Miller walked in and said, ‘Shut the hell up, I’m the coach — and you are here to play football’”. Penrose recalls the startling impact of his first impression of Miller, former head-coach for the Broncos. “It caught some people by surprise,” he said. But it was clear who was in command. According to Penrose, it was Miller's ability to align the team — while harnessing each player's individual talent — that led the Broncos to success.

Good leaders have a clear way of doing things, while remaining open to input from others, Penrose said — a belief he formed through his observations of successful coaches. “A competent leader does not fear losing control,” he said. “He does not see others’ ideas as threats.”

Not every leader needs to be a technical expert in their industry, but they must know how to leverage their team’s experience. Growing from the collective intelligence is critical in bringing a resilient team together. Leaders who feel they constantly need to reaffirm their status or innovative abilities stifle trust and creativity within a team. From Penrose’s experience, people get tired of this.

The most successful NFL coaches don’t necessarily have the most football experience, Penrose said. Success comes from how those coaches relate with the players. “As a coach you are surrounded with great knowledge and talented people,” he said. “Your role as a leader is to get these people to work together.”

Consistency and Communication: Don’t be the guy wearing the hat

Miller was a master communicator who ran the team with precision, Penrose said. “Players want to be told what the schedule is going to look like from Monday through Sunday night,” he said. “Things communicated consistently and firmly don’t lead to idle locker room discussion or confusion.” In other words: create structure and clarity of vision and people will follow.

Miller used simple rules to create a culture of consistency. Hats were not allowed during inside team meetings, according to Penrose. While it was a simple rule, the strict enforcement set a tone of discipline which permeated the entire team.

“With the Jets this type of discipline didn’t really matter,” Penrose said. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to lose a game because of that, but with the Broncos you knew what you were getting into.” According to Penrose, consistency and communication was lost on the Jets. “The Jets didn’t have a platform that we stood for,” he said. “We would practice when the coach felt like it.”

Reflecting on this, Penrose felt it was one of the primary differences between the two teams, which, ultimately, led to one’s success and the other’s failure.

Structure: Create processes that works and iterate

“The NFL is repetitive, repetitive, repetitive. It’s the same week over and over again.” Penrose echoed this sentiment — repetitively. But his belief was clear: teams that intentionally create a reproducible system based on what has worked fare better than those who are less structured.

“Did successful teams travel on Sunday? What is working and what is not?” Penrose recalled these questions that hint at the strategic evaluation of best practices based on evidence. This is no different in the business world, where well-targeted strategies implemented and evaluated consistently are the norm in most organizations with continued success. This highlights the need to avoid scattershot approaches, where outcomes are vague and evaluation is difficult.

Resilience: Have the confidence that you can win

Have you ever wondered why some teams can come back from certain defeat in the last quarter? I have, and I asked Penrose.

“If a team is not seeing the quarterback win, they won’t trust it’s possible,” he said. “Building success helps strengthen teams. Getting wins make you resilient to challenges.”

Teams have to believe they are making progress, according to Penrose. He believes people need to learn from their wins and losses. If defeats are just losses, you lose more than the game. You lose morale.

According to Penrose, the defeat mentality can permeate an entire team. To fight against the odds, a team must believe that success is possible and keep calm under pressure. This means building up small wins and constantly looking for ways to improve.

Penrose believes players needs to trust the process. For that to happen, they need to feel progress and experience success. This points to the need to create systems that are well-informed and designed to give the greatest chances of success AND the ability to learn from failures.

In the third quarter, the team that expects success and knows what they are going for is better positioned to win. In Penrose’s view, these teams fare far better than the teams who believe they only have a slim chance.

When you have the confidence that you can win, you are much more likely to do so. When you have a mentality that the challenges are too great, it is unlikely that you will. According to Penrose, a truly confident team will stay confident in the face of loss and learn from their mistakes.

Penrose’s Characteristic of a Great Team:

  1. It believes in each player

  2. It doesn't play fearful

  3. It does not cut corners on preparation.

  4. It is growth focused

  5. It focuses on building lasting relationships