Lessons for Leaders:  The NFL Edition

by | Oct 24, 2023

Image of three NFL footballs sitting on the turf with a blue marker help illustrate the Learn Lead Lift Framework in sports

In the United States, many people celebrate the start of the new NFL football season with similar enthusiasm for a major holiday.  There is plenty of outfit planning, drinking, feasting, and money changing hands happening in living rooms, sports bars and backyards throughout the country this time of year.  You may be surprised to learn that elements of The Learn Lead Lift Framework® were partially inspired by the insights of a former  NFL quarterback, David Fales.  To be honest, I was a little surprised when this happened, too. 

As many people as there are who may enjoy and celebrate NFL football, there are many who are rightfully critical of the sport.  After all, the NFL is at its core, a business and a very lucrative one at that.  Like most businesses both past and present, the NFL has and does continue to cause harm to its stakeholders in the course of doing its business.  There is much work yet to be done to change this, and we can acknowledge both the NFL’s positive efforts to change as well as the need for it to continue doing so.  

Wherever you would put yourself on the fandom scale for NFL football, I invite you to consider what David taught me about leadership and see how your perspective may shift as a result. 

Lesson #1:  Quarterbacks aren’t really “all that”

As someone who has never played football, I was surprised to learn from David that the quarterback isn’t the only leader on the field.  The most senior players on both offense and defense play significant leadership roles both on and off the field. 

In other words, a football team operates with far more collective leadership and through a stronger degree of 360 Influence than it might appear to us sitting in the stands or watching a game on TV.  

Lesson #2:  Role clarity and readiness 

When you are the number two or number three quarterback, you play a vital role in the collective leadership system even if you never set foot on the field during a game.  You leverage the leadership behaviors of Focus, in order to be ready to jump into the game at a moment’s notice, and Humility, in order to be an effective number two or number three supporting number one, while doing so.  

Lession #3:  Adapt your coaching style to the player

One of the things David and I discussed at length was the extent to which each player is an individual with different needs and motivators.  He described playing for coaches who were tough, hypercritical, and who tended to yell and scream at players in an attempt to motivate them.  While he admitted that “some guys are motivated by that,” it wasn’t a coaching style that David found motivating for him personally.  

He observed that coaches who led through quiet confidence and who tended to use positive reinforcement were ultimately more motivating for him to play for. 

In other words, leaders who embrace a mindset that Identity Matters and who have strong Emotional Intelligence may have an edge over leaders who don’t because they can adapt their approach as needed.  

Final thoughts  

David wasn’t the only professional athlete I had the privilege to speak to and learn from while I was writing Learn Lead Lift, WNBA star, Nneka Ogwumike, and former professional cyclist turned firefighter, Jake Hess also shared some incredible insights with me about leadership.  

Whether you are leading in the office, on the court, on the road or from the bench I encourage you to look for the leadership lessons to be found there the next time you watch a game.  To learn more about David, Nneka and Jake and their lessons in leadership, pick up your copy of Learn Lead Lift today.

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