Vince Lombardi’s Leadership and the Path to Wisdom

Today, I will discuss how Vince Lombardi changed the Green Bay Packers’ entire culture and made champions out of underachievers.  For this analysis, I draw from Peter G. Northouse’s book Leadership, Jake Emen’s article “Vince Lombardi: A Case Study in the Art of Leadership” (available at notes from Professor Cooper’s class, and my own experiences.  In the end, we will discover how sports can change not only athletes, but the audience itself (my closing paragraph includes bits of wisdom I devised from Lombardi’s actions and words); in fact, it is my contention that there is a great deal of wisdom to be gained by taking a thoughtful look at the leadership philosophy that the greatest coach in NFL history embodied and exemplified.  Indeed, Lombardi led by example and emphasized discipline, fearlessness, confidence, vision and direction, practicality, responsibility, honesty, commitment, power, and integrity; also, he always had faith in himself and his players and is revered for his wisdom by football historians and fans alike.

Vince Lombardi turned a team mired in mediocrity into one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.  By the end of the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers won 96 games and became the winningest team of the decade.  This was not automatic, though.  Lombardi knew that a significant change within the organization and in the hearts of his players was necessary to succeed.  He walked onto the practice field and instantly introduced a culture of discipline and fearlessness to a team previously led by an easy-going and soft spoken coach; in fact, he restructured a failed team culture of casual t-shirt wearing football players to professionals who projected a winning image and wore blazers and ties when traveling to another city to play a road game.  He invited any nonbelievers to “get the hell out” and his confidence in himself spread to his players.  Emen quotes Bart Starr, the Packers’ quarterback, as stating, “I think we’re going to begin to win,” soon after Lombardi’s arrival in Green Bay.  Lombardi’s authority, self-confidence, and discipline helped him seize leadership of the team and instill faith in his philosophy in his players’ hearts.  He never lapsed into unprofessionalism and his players admired him for it.  Most of all, according to Northwestern University professor John Cooper, Managing Partner at Milestone Partners, LLC, a leader must influence a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.  Lombardi accomplished that without a hitch and led them to multiple NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles.

Lombardi created a new atmosphere on the football field as well.  His solutions to opponents’ defenses were simple and required his players to think for themselves.  He placed great emphasis on punctuality and expected his players to arrive 15 minutes early to every practice.  Now, Northouse describes the style approach to leadership as being a balancing act between task behaviors (those that help group members achieve their goals) and relationship behaviors (actions that enhance a group member’s comfort within the organization), and even though Lombardi formed relationships with his players and some of them even grew to love him (though most feared him), he always focused on goal accomplishment no matter what the cost.  His honesty prevented him from giving compliments to players who did not deserve them even if it meant that it would lessen an underachieving player’s frustration, and his commitment to excellence made it absolutely impossible.  According to Emen, Willie Wood’s confidence all but disappeared completely after failing over and over again in practice.  Lombardi waited until just the right moment to give him a pat on the back for a job well done thereby restoring his confidence; again, Lombardi did not care as much about hurting people’s feelings as he did about winning.  In Wood’s case, we see how Lombardi used the right amount of pressure to bring out the best in his players.  To this day, Forrest Gregg bears the greatest compliment that coach Lombardi ever gave a player: public recognition as the finest player he ever coached.  It was an assertion Lombardi made much later in his life.  Lombardi never rewarded underachievers or anyone who gave less to the team than he did.  Because he gave so much of himself to the team, every single player pushed way beyond his own limits and learned something new about himself after each practice session and game.  He believed that coaching involved teaching, and that the only way someone will follow you is if you show them why your ideas work.  All in all, the Packers saw results on the scoreboard and their opponents gritting their teeth in frustration; after only one season, they believed in Lombardi’s philosophy and embodied it, for Lombardi himself was the living manifestation of the ideas he professed and taught.  He certainly led by example and relied on his wisdom and integrity to gain his players’ admiration.

Lastly, Professor Cooper stated that self-awareness is a key component in effective leadership.  Keen self-awareness requires a high degree of wisdom (knowledge of life itself) and vice-versa: through insight, one’s experiences will reveal one’s strengths and weaknesses.  Through sports (in this case football), one can truly gain much wisdom by observing with a watchful and critical eye.  Each player on a football team has a specialized role, much like our own personality traits, values, and different forms of knowledge play unique roles in defining who we are.  Even if one does not aim to lead a team on the gridiron or a group of any kind, one must be able to lead oneself down a path to success.  In fact, the individual’s team consists of her values, knowledge, skills, and abilities, and she must know how to manage them in order to achieve ultimate success.  Like Lombardi was with his players, one ought to be with oneself.

It is discipline that will win the day.  A fear of failure quickly becomes a fear to try.  Self-confidence makes your goal the constant in an environment defined by variables.  It is only with a clear vision of one’s goal and a map with distinctly marked milestones that attainment becomes possible.  It is within the context of one’s own circumstances that practical plans must be drawn to delineate how a goal will be reached and when.  Responsibility is the difference between preparing for a struggle and struggling to prepare.  Honesty with oneself reveals one’s strengths and weaknesses, and only by employing and addressing them will one truly know the magnitude of one’s potential.  Commitment keeps one focused on the job at hand and will make success the only acceptable outcome.  With a powerful mind, heart, and spirit, a man is a gentleman and a woman a lady.  It is one’s integrity that, upon doing what is right, would make receiving any attention for it unattractive.

These are just a few lessons I can draw from Lombardi’s values (as listed in the first paragraph) and leadership style.  What lessons for leading yourself through life can you derive from his methods of leading the Green Bay Packers?

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

I would like to thank Professor John Cooper for showing me different theories on leadership throughout the course of the Fall semester.  They provide a structure for different sets of behavioral patterns and actions and allow me to recognize the practices that apply to specific situations.  A better understanding of leadership not only equips you to be a better leader, but also allows you to judge the actions of the leaders in your life with a heightened awareness of their needs and thought processes.  And as always, thank you for your support and readership.

    • Erin Peters
    • November 16th, 2009

    Dear Cam,
    Thank you for an insightful article! I am interested in learning more about Lombardi’s leadership techniques and how they can be applied to my own goals. We all have to be our own coach and often we must be a coach for friends and family, too. Being honest with praise (but not stingy) will definitely make any words of encouragement more genuine and thus much stronger and sought after. What I admire most was Lombardi’s refusal to accept mediocrity! Imagine a world where no one accepts anything but the best from themselves and others!

  1. Indeed, if everyone held themselves to higher standards, perhaps the world would be a bit better off. Lombardi’s lessons cover a vast range of topics; in fact, there is much wisdom to be gained from his coaching/leadership style.

    There are several books on Lombardi and if I am not mistaken, Paul Hornung wrote a book on his experience as a Green Bay Packer led by the venerable Vince Lombardi. That could be a good start for you… and if you pick it up and read it, please come back and add your thoughts in a comment on this post. I would like to hear your perspective as well.


    • Mat Masters
    • November 20th, 2009

    The selection of Lombardi as the personification of leadership in sports is a perfect one. One need not delve very deeply into the record to find concrete evidence of his effectiveness. In 1958, the season prior to Lombardi’s arrival, the Packers finished an abysmal 1-10-1. Two years later Green Bay would play in the NFL Championship game, and one year after that they would win their first of five NFL titles under Lombardi. In the nine years preceeding Lombardi’s hiring as head coach in 1959, the team won 31% of their games. In the nine that followed his tenure they won 44%. However, as Cam states, during Lombardi’s nine years at the helm the team was the winningest in all of pro football. The truth is, it wasn’t even close. It is often said that a team takes on the character of its head coach, and clearly that is what took place in Green Bay during the 1960s. Lombardi’s characteristics of hard work, drive, discipline, and confidence were embodied in his players, and the results were historic.

    • One can find so much wisdom not in only his teachings, but in the words and actions of athletes and coaches in all sports as well. One of the reasons why I chose to address this topic was to emphasize that sports, when viewed beyond the field and uniforms, become a moving philosophy… a reminder of what one can do when faced with great challenges… an assertion that nothing is impossible when the need to sacrifice and the commitment to excel are both accepted… that failure is sadly only that when one indeed fails to learn from it.

      Thank you for adding to the discussion. I appreciate the information you included in your post.

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