SteelCityHobbies, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Learn How to Communicate and Listen Well from an NFL Legend

There are those who don’t give a blade of grass about the NFL. Others love football but cringe at the idea of rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And there are those (like me) who are a die-hard fans of the game and of my beloved hometown franchise. Regardless, if you are interested in improving your leadership, it behooves you to listen to and learn from Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin.

With the first regular-season NFL games fast approaching, Jim Trotter of The Atlantic wrote an insightful article on the maturation of Tomlin, once the league’s youngest head coach and is now its longest-tenured active head coach. And the article stresses a key to Tomlin’s success that we all can develop as leaders: Listening.

“People love to highlight what a good communicator Tomlin is, and deservedly so,” Trotter wrote. “What people often fail to recognize or appreciate is that Tomlin is also an incredible listener.”

I agree, but I would add a slight twist to that observation: People often fail to recognize or appreciate the importance of being a good listener when it comes to being a good communicator.

Good communication has many components, and being a good listener is perhaps the most important of them all. If we fail to listen, we aren’t likely to understand. And if we lack understanding, whatever we say, no matter how eloquently we say it, is unlikely to have much positive influence.

Tomlin hit on several aspects of what it takes to be a good listener, so I thought I’d share some of what I learned. While leaders need to listen to all types of voices, these were the three he spoke specifically about in Trotter’s article:

Listen to Your Life

Tomlin, who has been to two Super Bowls (winning one) and has 16 consecutive non-losing seasons as a head coach, isn’t the same leader he was when he entered the profession, partly because he has learned to listen to, learn from, and gain clarity from his life experiences.

“I think you have to live a little bit to get there, and you have to do the job for a while to get there,” he said. “I imagine that it’s different for everyone, but it’s important to me to acknowledge that that’s kind of where I am. I don’t know that it alters my approach to business at all; it certainly doesn’t in a negative way.”

Tomlin says he’s more focused on the right things and less distracted by “things that are irrelevant.”

What are the right things?

“I do the same things, but I do them with a different spirit,” he said. “I was ‘me’ focused at 34 years old (his first year as a head coach), making sure I was doing what it is that I felt I needed to do in organizing and leading. Today, the people that I work with have my energy, whether it’s players, coaches, support personnel. I roll out of bed trying to create an environment where they all can excel and have a great day. It’s because of my experience.”

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Listen to Your Lieutenants

The higher you rise in an organization, the more you need other leaders around you who can help you make and implement decisions. For a head football coach, those leaders are the assistant coaches and in particular the offensive and defensive coordinators. The head coach still makes many of the final decisions, just as is the case for a CEO, but he must be open to input and give his lieutenants freedom and authority to do their jobs.

“He was a guy who listened,” said Bruce Arians, the Steelers’ offensive coordinator when Tomlin first became a head coach. “He didn’t let his ego take over. … He’d come in and he’d sit down and he knew what the defense had to do, and he wanted to know what (the game plan) was going to be like offensively that week. I’d ask him, ‘Do you need 30 points? Do you need just don’t turn it over, make sure we get 15?’ He’d talk it out. A lot of guys won’t do that.”

Listen to Your Players

The front-line employees of any organization know what life is like in the trenches, and they often have ideas and insights that can make a huge difference in the team’s success. Having lunch with team members or just chatting with them during the day helps a leader learn what they need, in life and in work, and how to set them up for success.

Tomlin, according to defensive lineman Cam Heyward, gets to know his players individually and doesn’t take a cookie-cutter approach to them.

“He’s intentional about every action he takes, and through listening he’s able to show that intentionality,” Heyward said. “He’s able to show you that he cares. He’s able to give you what you need, not what you want.”

Teach Others to Listen

Listening is an art and a skill. Since it can be learned, we can invest our time in learning to do it better and also in passing it along to those we lead. Tomlin compares this to swinging a golf club.

“You might have a certain aptitude, but unless you go to the range and work at it, you can’t maximize it,” he said. “When I heard it in that way, it hit me like a lightning bolt. It was sometime in the mid-90s. When you hear it’s a skill, that means some of us are naturally better at it than others, so you better know whether you’re good or bad at it. Either way, it’s something you can improve at.”

If you get better at receiving information, he tells those around him, you have more control over how quickly you improve in your work and as a leader.

“It resonates with some,” he said, “and with others, they’re just waiting for my mouth to stop moving.”

That’s the reality: We can’t force anyone to listen to us. But the more we improve our skills as listeners, the more likely others will follow our example.

Top image: SteelCityHobbies, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons (Edited for width and focus)


  1. Don Myers

    I’ve had a chance to connect with Wattles and Watson and I’d love to catch up with you Walt. You can reach me at 303-378-9428.

    Reply to Don Myers

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