5 Project Leadership Lessons from the NFL

November 25, 2016 by

In the sporting world, it is often said you’re ‘only as good as your last game’, meaning you are defined by your results.


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No one remembers any of the inch-perfect passes Russell Wilson threw in Super bowl 49; they remember the interception he threw on the goal line that cost his team the championship. ‘Worst play call in Super Bowl history’ is the phrase that was doing the rounds that following Monday. ‘What were Pete Carroll and his staff thinking, passing instead of running?’ One decision in the heat of battle, and it cost them everything. An entire season’s work, undone.

So what can a project manager learn from this? Are you only as good as your last project? The hard truth is that no one will care about your project, they’ll care about the result. This is one of the many lessons that project managers can take from sports. Read on for 5 project leadership lessons from the NFL.


5 Project Leadership Lessons from the NFL

1. How to Define Success

“In life, as in football, you won’t go far unless you know where the goalposts are”. – Arnold H. Glasow.

Many projects fail as they are rudderless. Setting objectives, tracking responsibility, measuring success, – boring right? I just want to get this project done! What good is the completed project if you don’t know how well it performed and how can you improve? What did you learn?


2. Individuals Don’t Succeed, Teams Do

The man who was on the other side of that dramatic finish to Super Bowl 49 was the great Bill Belichick. A man who has won 4 Super Bowls and established a dynasty in New England. Aside from the constant presence of Tom Brady, the faces in Belichick’s teams seem to change perpetually. It is the system and the culture he has created and not the person alone that wins games.



“The strength of the unit and how they all function together”.

This truth was displayed in the first of this year’s Thanksgiving games. At the end of the fourth quarter, the Minnesota Vikings imploded and essentially handed the Detroit Lions the win. Darius Slay did make a terrific play in intercepting the ball to set up that game-winning field goal, but it was the previous play that was the defining moment. The Vikings had converted a vital third down to retain possession of the ball, Matt Asiata even got out of bounds to stop the clock, the Vikings were marching. Just when it looked like they were going to close the game out – penalty flag on the play, “illegal formation, replay third down”.  The Vikings had simply failed to line up correctly, they lacked organization and coordination.

How many projects have you seen fail for this reason? Project success depends almost entirely on collaboration. You can have a terrific group of individuals who are talented and driven, but if everyone isn’t on the same page and working together, nothing will be achieved.


3. How to lead

Many project managers also find themselves in a position of leadership. Responsible for the performance of a collective, you may wonder ‘how did I find myself in this position?’ ‘who am I to lead? I don’t even know the meaning!’



You don’t have to give rousing speeches; you don’t have to have all the answers. Just do your job, execute the tasks, lead by example and your team will believe in you. Your presence will be enough.

The Indianapolis Colts played their first Thanksgiving day game for 20 years back in 2016. The absence of one man was sorely felt. Without Andrew Luck on the field, it was as if the ‘real’ Colts weren’t even playing, it was just the Pittsburgh Steelers and some guys they brought in for a training exercise.

As Bill Belichick said; “It is not the strength of the individual players, but it is the strength of the unit and how well they all function together”. So why did the absence of one man make such a difference? It’s because he is the leader of that team.

He isn’t responsible for every play, in fact, he’s only on the field about 40% of the time between offense, defense, and special teams. But he is a fantastic player who looks assured in everything he does; his teammates feel privileged to play alongside him. Everyone seems to stand a little taller, to believe that little bit more.

That’s all you can aspire to be as a leader; a good example. When the pressure is on and your team members look to you – their project manager, their leader. They don’t expect you to do their job for them. They expect to see you doing your job, and if you’re doing it well and doing it with confidence, then suddenly there’s that belief, that inspiration to do their best.

We saw evidence of that this past Sunday when Luck and his Colts held firm in the 4th quarter and defeated the Miami Dolphins, delivering his franchise a winning record for the first time since 2015, when Luck’s troubles began.




4. Staying on top of Technology

The NFL has always been at the forefront of technological innovation. They demonstrate a willingness to embrace the new in order to improve.

Gubser & Schnakenberg’s digital system drastically changed the way football is played. Their radio system allowed communication from the sidelines to the players which enhanced the level of execution of a team’s strategy. Project managers need to maximize the tools available to them and stay up-to-date with technology that could improve their work.

Of course, this takes patience and commitment as Bill Belichick found out when he struggled with his Surface Pro from our friends at Microsoft! Belichick would be the first man to tell you that he lost his temper because of poor execution and performance from his team and not a temperamental device. He is not a man who hides away from failure.




5. Failure is key to Success

Football teams can’t win every game. Not every project can be successful. The question is what was learned and what can be improved next time around?



Winning seemed to come as naturally as breathing for Bill Walsh, one of the greatest coaches in sporting history. He knew the value of failure because he didn’t hide from it.

Do you think after Super Bowl 49 that Pete Carroll went back to his team scratching his head, maybe even pointing fingers? Absolutely not, Pete Carroll knows what it takes to win and that to react like that would achieve nothing.  He acknowledged the blunder, owned it, and moved on to the next season, the next game.

Because that’s what it’s all about right? ‘You’re only as good as your last game’. You’re only as good as the last project you managed. So the next time your project fails, will you point fingers, or will you lead your team forward?


Updated: November 26th, 2018

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Darragh Broderick
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