In his seminal book Instant Replay, about the World Champion Green Bay Packers under legendary coach Vince Lombardi in the 1960s, Jerry Kramer describes Lombardi’s leadership. He was authoritarian, mercurial, and endlessly demanding. Despite a roster of Hall of Fame players, everyone knew who the boss was. Players feared Lombardi and his tirades and worked tirelessly to stay out of his doghouse.

For years, many credited Lombardi’s browbeating for the Packers’ success – five titles between 1961 and 1967. He was famously quoted saying, “winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.” But as it turns out…

The Tough Guy Stuff Was for Show
Careful readers of the book recognize something very different at work. Kramer’s depiction of the coach is of a deeply loyal, loving leader who valued each individual on the team and promoted an atmosphere in which each player could rely on his teammates. Lombardi was adamant that football was every player’s third priority behind God and family.

He tailored his communication style to each individual and let everyone know how critical they were to the success of the team. For the toughest players, he could be exacting and hard-driving, but he also worked well with the more sensitive players. As a result, the Packers would do anything for Lombardi, and for each other.

Comparing a professional football team to a typical workplace environment could seem like a stretch to many, but in fact, a strong leader on the field uses the same tactics as a strong leader at work. Football players train physically and mentally for years to succeed in short bursts of incredible metabolic intensity using a memorized playbook and well defined rules enforced by everpresent referees in order to move in linear direction toward a static, immovable goal. Even so, what drives high performance in groups does apply in sports and business.

In rigorous environments, people often cope and respond by developing strong interpersonal bonds. A personal commitment to excellence along with safe and secure relationships with team members, elicits our full capacity. Though Lombardi’s players feared him, they loved him too. They played their hearts out because they didn’t want to disappoint him or each other.

Successful leaders build a culture in which each team member has total clarity on their role and believes they are important to the team’s success. Lombardi’s approach of creating team dynamics has been adopted by successful coaches in every sport, and by successful team leaders in business.

Our Brains and Relationships
Lombardi didn’t know anything about brain science, but he did know that the feeling of a tribe would be the key to success with his players. That feeling of belonging to a tribe, feeling validated and recognized for our contributions, and feeling connected in the working environment, continue to drive engagement and productivity today.

The Lessons for Leaders
For organizational leadership, the lessons are clear: metaphors of sports coaches winning through intimidation have limited utility in the workplace. What does translate – the need for a pro-social culture focused on inspiring individual and team achievement rather than punishing failure. Great leaders don’t feel the need to demonstrate who’s boss; they understand the need to empower employees to engage in the work and strive for excellence.

Vince Lombardi, who died in 1970, might not recognize the new rules of successful workplace culture. But he would understand pursuing a high-performance culture that achieves organizational goals. After all, for him, winning was the only thing.

Want to learn more about creating a high-performance team? Download a free chapter of my book, Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.

Action Steps:

  • Recognize that top-down management doesn’t work well in the modern workplace.
  • Build a relational work environment where employees feel connected and valued.
  • Focus on inspiring employees to achieve their personal potential and contribute to team success.