An Unexpected Lesson (or two) from “Lombardi”

The other day, I had the good fortune to take in the Broadway play, Lombardi, about the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi.

The legendary coach, Vince Lombardi

Told with humor and emotion, the show was terrific, the cast was uniformly outstanding, and the production (as theatre in the round), was intimate and engaging.  (Note: It is only running through March — so if you’re a fan of the NFL, or of great leaders, definitely make plans to see the show, if you’re anywhere near New York).

Growing up as a sports fan, I had read a number of books about Lombardi and the great Packer teams of the 1960’s.  My brother, who accompanied me, played football for four years in high school — so we were both looking forward to the show and even got in a football-and-red-meat frame of mind with a steak dinner at Ben Benson’s Steakhouse in the Theatre District before the show. Going in, I was expecting to hear some of the now legendary Lombardi quotes, about dedication, teamwork, excellence, and the like — topped off by, of course, “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.”  What I wasn’t expecting, though, was the “HR” lesson that I emerged with.

It’s well-known that Coach Lombardi was single-minded in his pursuit of perfection — which, in his mind, was each of the players on the field playing to the utmost potential on each and every play (as exemplified by the simple but powerful “Power Sweep” when run to perfection).  This, in and of itself, is a healthy reminder of the need to strive for operational excellence (or, as Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy put it, “Execution”) every single day.  That wasn’t at all surprising, of course.

The play's star, Dan Lauria, with a statue of "the old man" outside of his field of glory, Lambeau Field

What was surprising was this: On my drive home through the beginnings of the recent East Coast snowstorm, I kept wondering what it was about this man that made people gravitate toward him.  From the beginning, his teams won — so, as success attracts success, it’s no surprise that people would be attracted to him and seek to learn from his ways.  That wasn’t it, though.  He wasn’t tall, didn’t have movie star looks, and didn’t have prior standout success as a head coach in a media mecca such as New York or LA.  I pondered and pondered, and finally realized what I thought “it” was. (Or, more exactly, two things).

1.  He truly loved his players and, to borrow a phrase from one of my colleagues, he “wished them auspicious success.”  He realized it wasn’t all about him — it was about the team, and the collective success of the individuals on the team. He wanted them to play their best at every moment, and they knew it and would run through walls for him.

2.  When he spoke, he spoke with utter conviction.  The commitment to excellence was right there in his voice.  It wasn’t an act, or they (the players, media, fans, etc.), would have seen right through it.  When he spoke about football (and, by extension, self-discipline and commitment), there wasn’t any doubt that he felt there was nothing in the world more important for him to be doing and talking about than what he was doing.  The sincerity of conviction resonated with people, and that’s part of why they were so drawn to him.

Lessons for HR?  What would be better than an organization where the leader truly loved his/her employees and worked tirelessly for their success, realizing that it wasn’t all about him?  And one where the leader “walked the talk” with the deepest conviction, every moment of every day.  An impossible goal?  Perhaps.  But something to strive for, indeed.  (Thanks, Coach Lombardi).

One response to “An Unexpected Lesson (or two) from “Lombardi”

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