Are you ready for some football…leadership lessons?
Seven powerful takeaways from my favorite NFL leaders to help you win big at work
Fall’s in the air here in Louisville, Kentucky!
And that means football’s on the TV.
As we kick off another NFL season, I’ve been thinking about all the incredible NFL leaders I’ve had the pleasure of hosting on my podcast, How Leaders Lead.
Today, I want to highlight my favorite takeaways from each of them, from top athletes like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to owners and executives like Condoleezza Rice and Brandon Beane.
These insights go beyond the world of sports and apply to leadership in all walks of life. There’s practical advice here to help you:
- Shift your mindset during tough times
- Make a bold decision
- Tap into a new level of teamwork
- Develop other leaders
- Excel in pressure-packed situations
- Have a difficult conversation
- Metabolize your failures
Best of all? You don’t have to be a sports fan to find value in these insights. They can help you level up your leadership game even if you don’t know a touchdown from a field goal.
Let’s get started!
Tom Brady on embracing adversity
If you’re a leader, I can guarantee you’re going to deal with setbacks, dire situations, crises, and more.
Great leaders find a way to leverage the adversity they face and turn it into an advantage.
And nobody does that better than the GOAT Tom Brady!
In fact, I remember one time when Tom and I were out on the golf course together. Somehow, I was holding onto a narrow lead. But Tom just grinned and quipped, “You can't come from behind if you're not behind.”
He really relishes that underdog position! So when he joined me on the podcast, I had to ask him about it. Here’s what he told me:
“You’ve just got to shift the mindset sometimes. If it's not a perfect situation, people go, ‘Oh, God, how could I succeed?’ And they look for excuses. I think other people go, ‘Well, don't give it to me perfect. I want it rainy. I want it windy. I want to beat them at their best.’”
When competitors are beating you or your numbers aren’t looking great, use that same mindset shift. Embrace your underdog status, lean into the adversity, and don’t be surprised when it brings out the very best in you and your team.
Roger Goodell on making tough decisions
Here’s a harsh truth: you shouldn’t be in a leadership role if you’re uncomfortable making an unpopular decision or expressing an alternative point of view.
If you want to lead, you’ve got to accept that making tough decisions just goes with the territory.
And let me tell you, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell knows a thing or two about making unpopular decisions!
I asked him about where he finds the courage for it:
“When I make a decision, I know people will disagree. Calling a lockout is a very hard thing to do. But I knew we had to do it to get to a better place. And you just have to have that courage to do it. I think so many people know the right answer, but don't have the courage to do it.”
To remind him of the importance of doing the right thing, Roger keeps a framed piece of failed legislation that cost his father his Senate seat. Charles Goodell made a tough decision to introduce legislation that would end the Vietnam War. He did so knowing it would likely cost him his seat in the next election—and sure enough, it did.
For Roger, that document is a powerful reminder to make decisions with the courage of his convictions, even when those decisions are unpopular or risky.
Peyton Manning on teamwork
You’d expect great athletes to talk about the importance of teamwork, but it’s every bit as important for leaders off the field.
To get big things done, you’ve got to bring your team along with you.
If you show up like you’ve already got all the answers, you’ll never be able to get your whole team on board with your vision.
Peyton Manning shared some wise words about the power of being vulnerable with your team. It’s how he gets everybody working together—both in his NFL career and now in his various business ventures, including Omaha Productions and his popular “Manningcast” on ESPN.
“I [am] the first to admit if I don't know something. If a quarterback doesn't ask questions, I think he's gonna be in trouble. And I've asked more questions in the second chapter about all these different ventures because I'm not an expert. I don't know the answers. Let me be around somebody that knows more than me and pick their brain and try to get smarter in these ventures.”
That kind of vulnerability shows everyone around you that you need them. And when they contribute and feel valued, you’ll have a level of commitment, buy-in, and teamwork that you can’t get any other way.
Condoleezza Rice on what motivation really means
I know what you’re thinking: Did I miss the time Condi signed as a wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons?
But here’s a fun fact: Condoleezza Rice is part of the ownership group of the Denver Broncos, and her love and knowledge of football run deep.
When she joined me on my podcast, she was right in the middle of the hiring process for the Broncos’ next head coach (who ended up being Sean Payton).
I asked her what she was looking for in a great leader. Not surprisingly she looks for someone who can motivate others. But it’s not just about motivating others to do their jobs. It’s about motivating others to lead. In her words:
“Motivating people means motivating others to take on their leadership task. When we talk to great coaches, they talk about the locker room and the leaders who emerge within that locker room. Well, it's the same on any team. It's the same if you're a CEO. It's the same if you're a university leader. It's the same if you're in government. You have to inspire others to lead.”
As important as it is to develop yourself, remember: the truest mark of a great leader is how effectively they develop other great leaders.
Larry Fitzgerald on performing under pressure
Every leader faces big, pressure-packed moments.
How do you prepare for those situations, like a must-win pitch for funding, a massive speech, or a hard-hitting investor Q&A? What do you do to get your mindset right?
When Larry Fitzgerald retired after the 2020 season, he did so as one of the most successful and respected wide receivers in history.
He was one of my very first guests on How Leaders Lead, and he shared some timeless wisdom about how he builds his confidence ahead of high-pressure games:
You can’t be effective on Sunday if you don’t take care of Monday. Every single day, I'm just staying completely in the moment. I'm being the best Larry Fitzgerald on Monday. I'll be the best Larry Fitzgerald on Tuesday. I'll be the best Larry Fitzgerald on Wednesday.
And if I'm doing that every single day, why wouldn't I be the best on Sunday when I step out on that field?
It gives me unbelievable confidence knowing that I did all the work already. This is just a show now. I put all the hard work in earlier in the week. Now let's go out and execute and have fun.
When you come up against a big moment and don’t feel ready, think back on your preparation. Trust the work you’ve put in. And let that give you the confidence you need like Larry says, to simply “execute and have fun.”
Eric Wood on holding people accountable
Addressing poor performance issues can be one of the most challenging tasks for a leader.
Nobody likes those kinds of confrontations, but they’re vital to keeping your team culture healthy and getting the results you need.
Eric Wood was the heart of the Buffalo Bills’ offense, playing center until a career-ending neck injury forced him to retire.
As the captain, he often had to let his teammates know when their effort wasn’t cutting it. He described the posture he took in those moments as “demanding but not demeaning.”
Here’s how he explains it:
“I always wanted to build people up before I broke them down if I had to hold them accountable to something.
“If a guy was taking a really bad pass set, it would do me no good as a leader to go up to the guy and be like, ‘Man, you need to put some extra work in because that stinks, and you're getting beat like a dog.’
“What I might say is, ‘Hey, early in my career, I was struggling with this. I found some guys around the league [and] I would try and pick up some different pieces of their game. Why don't you check out some film? I'll give you a few guys to check out.’
“That's a way to be demanding—hey, you need to get your stuff right, because you're hurting us. But I'm not demeaning him [or putting him] in a position where he's gonna lose confidence. I want to empower him. I want him to improve.
The next time you find yourself in a tough performance conversation, remember those three words (demanding, not demeaning), and you’ll strike the right balance between holding people accountable while also being supportive.
Brandon Beane on failure
I haven’t talked to a leader yet who doesn’t have a story of a big-time failure.
And if you’ve been around here long enough, you know I’m no exception: I’m the guy who came up with Crystal Pepsi. (Let me tell you, you know you messed up when they’re making fun of you on SNL!)
But the great leaders also go on to share how much they learned from those failures.
Brandon Beane, the GM of the Buffalo Bills, is no exception. Last year, the Bills made it all the way to the AFC Championship game, only to lose to the Chiefs in an overtime thriller.
I asked him how he handled the pain of a loss like that, and he didn’t mince words:
“You have to be honest with everyone that's involved, including yourself, and try [to ask] where can you learn from it. And if you don't learn from it, you wasted it.”
He doesn’t hide the pain and disappointment. And to be sure, our failures hurt. But we can’t let that pain keep us from taking an honest, open look at what worked and what didn’t. That’s the mentality that, over time, helps truly change those failures into valuable lessons.
If the wisdom in this article can help win Super Bowl trophies and grow franchises, I know it can help you and your team win, too. And I hope these leadership lessons from NFL greats have sparked ideas for whatever arena you work in.
And now, I’d love to learn from YOU! Leave a comment and tell me how one of these insights applies to your life as a leader. Or share your favorite leadership lesson from the world of sports, whether it’s something you learned from a famous athlete or your own t-ball coach!