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The 5 Most Valuable Leadership Qualities On and Off the Field

Have you ever wanted to sit down with the head coach to get the inside story after you’ve watched a football game on television? To ask what was on their mind when they made a strategic call? If you’re like me and the record-breaking number of fans who watched the Super Bowl this year, the answer is yes.

I recently had the next-best thing: Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan joined me for a conversation about leadership on and off the field. We covered a lot of ground, and several themes stuck with me, so I’m sharing them with you.

Before I get there, I’m sure you’re curious to hear what Mike thought of the Super Bowl, since he coached in the NFL for thirty-three years. Today, Mike is the UFL head coach of the Michigan Panthers. Mike weighed in on coach Shanahan’s surprising decision to take the first possession after winning the coin toss in overtime. Tune in to hear what Mike said at the beginning of my Off the Rak episode.

Mike’s been behind the playbook during his entire career and guided countless players in their respective positions, so I was leaning forward in my seat when he shared his thoughts on what leadership qualities are the most valuable to him. Mike shared five traits; they all feel as if they build to the final one. See if you agree:

  • Competency – What gets you to the NFL or any professional level of play is a mastery of your position, but what sustains your longevity is consistently supporting your teammates. Mike explained that new pro players quickly learn that the best way to adapt to this ultimate level of play is to put their skills to work for others.
  • Influence – Both Mike and I agree that having a positive influence on others is invaluable to a coach and the team. The ultimate compliment a coach can give a player is to say they just make everyone else better. Influence applies to coaching too. “Dan Reeves and Bill Parcels are two people I worked for who were great leaders [in this regard],” said Mike.
  • Trust – “The ultimate team sport that relies on trust is football.” Any one of twenty-two players on the field can make or break a particular play. And there are more than one hundred fifty plays in a game. Every player does his job. “Trust is the number-one component that makes a play work,” said Mike. You can’t advance unless you put the team first.
  • Faith – Mike added that great leaders on the field are spiritual: they’ve explored a belief system and act on it. It’s been said that faith and fear focus on the future, but it’s faith that nurtures a belief in a positive future and allows us to see a way forward with certainty. Naturally, that confidence is contagious and buoys your teammates.
  • Selflessness – “When teammates are selfish, they’re just temporary leaders,” said Mike. They may step up from time to time, but they lack consistent accountability because they don’t see the long game or the importance of preserving trust among players. Conversely, selfless players are the best leaders. They’re looking for ways to optimize everyone’s shared outcome in every single play.

When I asked Mike what advice he would have given himself as a young coach at the beginning of his career, he further drove the selflessness theme home by saying he would have checked his ego.

“It’s easy to get caught up in how your own career is advancing, because you get a lot of attention in this profession … You start to say, ‘Boy, I’m really something, aren’t I?’ … I would have said to my younger self, ‘Don’t let your ego get the best of you.’” He added that what made him a better coach and teacher was taking the focus off himself. “The pleasure and the joy and everything I get out of [coaching] is what I do for someone else.”

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Mike’s learning moments are a terrific reminder that we can experience greater joy and fulfillment when our purpose is focused on positively influencing others. When we lend our expertise, build trust, show faith in the future, and shift our attention to others, we’re putting years of tested leadership practices behind every decision.

Let’s set aside our temporary leadership efforts and get in the long game. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon on or off the field.

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