Lombardi on leadership: How a team of losers became perennial champions

leadership lessons Vince Lombard

“Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”      — Vince Lombardi

If you’re a leader, you’re a coach.

Every team — in sports, business, government, academia or nonprofit — has a roster of talented people. However, some leaders are better than others at bringing out the best in their people.

In 1957, the Green Bay Packers finished Coach Lisle Blackbourn’s fourth straight losing year with a 3–9 record. Ray “Scooter” McLean replaced him for the 1958 season. McLean went on to post a 1-10-1 record for a last-place finish in the National Football League. The Packers team had the worst record in its 39-year history.

In other words, the club had hit rock bottom.

The locker room was split, with the offense and defense pointing fingers at each other. The players liked McLean, “but he had no leadership qualities,” remembers the Packers’ Gary Knafelc. “If you’ve been around ballplayers, you know they’ll take you to the hilt every time. And we took Scooter in every way.” Consequently, the players were able to walk all over McLean and get away with poor behavior and poor playing — something a stronger coach would never have tolerated.

The Packer franchise was unique because 1,000 citizens bought shares in the club in 1950, raising $125,000 and preventing the team from moving to a bigger city. The shareholders elected a 45-person committee, which selected a 13-person executive committee that ran the team. Or tried to. The team had lost 72 games in the 1950s while winning only half that many. As a result, the shareholders demanded improvement. Talk swirled about replacing the executive committee. In addition, the other NFL owners wanted Commissioner Bert Bell to eject the Packers from the league.

The Packers needed a new coach. Who would risk making that decision? What coach would take a job in the NFL’s “salt mines of Siberia”?

The executive committee began its search following the January 1959 draft. Rumors abounded. One name continued to surface: Vince Lombardi.

At 45 and with no head-coaching experience, many believed Lombardi was too old for the job. Yet he was the fiery offensive mastermind of the champion team, the New York Giants.

“Why should we put so much trust in a guy from New York who’s never run anything in his life?”

After being turned down by one coach and passing on the popular “Curly” Lambeau, the executive committee presented Lombardi as its choice for the next Packers coach. The know-it-all shareholders were incredulous. Curly made this town — how can we turn away from him now? Why should we put so much trust in a guy from New York who’s never run anything in his life?

But the executive team had the votes. Twenty-six members voted for Lombardi, one voted against and 18 abstained.

Some leaders are better than others at bringing out the best in their people.

When Lombardi traveled to Green Bay in February to sign his contract, he outlined his football philosophy to the board: “A power offense built around the running game; a 4–3 defense; players who are in shape and will listen to what I say. If they don’t, they’ll be gone.”

“I want it understood,” Lombardi told the shareholders, “I’m in complete command here. I expect full cooperation from you. In return, you will get full cooperation from me. I’ve never been associated with a loser, and I don’t expect to be now.”

Before Lombardi arrived, one sportswriter compared the Packers’ offense to “a conga dance: 1, 2, 3, and kick.” Arriving after the December and January drafts, Lombardi nevertheless built a formidable team.

True to his word, he sent 16 prima donnas packing, includ­ing trading the Packers’ best receiver to the Cleveland Browns for three players who would become defensive stalwarts.

Scooter McLean’s team — that had lost 10 out of 12 games — was loaded with talent but McLean did not have the coaching ability to recognize and nurture it. Lombardi, on the other hand, was a terrific judge of talent. He brought out the best in those same players who went on to become Hall of Famers including Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Jim Ringo and Jim Taylor, as well as future All-Pros Jerry Kramer, Ron Kramer, Max McGee, Bill Forester and Dan Currie. 

“I’m going to find 36 men who have the pride to make any sacrifice to win. There are such men. If they’re not here, I will get them. If you’re not one, you might as well leave right now.”

On July 23, 1959, at a dinner attended by 56 players before the first day of training camp, Lombardi set the tone. “Gentlemen, we’re going to have a football team here, and we’re going to win some games. Do you know why? You are going to have confidence in me and my system. By being alert, you are going to make fewer mistakes than your opponents. By working harder, you are going to out-execute, out-block, and out-tackle every team that comes your way.”

“I’ve never been a losing coach and don’t intend to start here,” he continued. “There is no one big enough to think [he] can do what he wants. Trains and planes are coming in and leaving Green Bay every day, and he’ll be on one of them. I won’t. I’m going to find 36 men who have the pride to make any sacrifice to win. There are such men. If they’re not here, I will get them. If you’re not one, you might as well leave right now.”

If Lombardi was in your face, it meant he saw your potential.

“Perfection is not attainable,” Lombardi believed, “but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” The 1959 Packers finished 7–5 and Lombardi was named Coach of the Year.

Lombardi led the team to five NFL Championships in seven years and won two Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967. Today, millions of people worldwide view the Super Bowl, and the winner of that game is always awarded the Lombardi Trophy. 

Food for thought:

  • How bad must things get before you decide to change?
  • Who’s running your business? You or someone (or some­thing) else?
  • Who on your team is waiting for you to help them bring out their best?

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About the Author: Greg Bustin

Greg Bustin is a 15-year Vistage Master Chair with two Chief Executive groups, a Key Executive group and an Emerging Leader group in Dallas. He is also a Vistage speaker and has delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five conti

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