Oswald Letter

Learn important lessons from Lombardi’s eight-hour session

Lombardiby Dan Oswald

Over the weekend, I was watching a piece on legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. The documentary chronicled Lombardi’s life growing up in Brooklyn through his storied years as a championship coach with the Packers. As a Packers fan, I’ve read biographies on Lombardi and other books that have discussed the man and his abilities, but there was one story told in this piece that I had not heard before. The story was told by none other than John Madden, himself a Super Bowl champion coach and famed football broadcaster.

As a young assistant coach, Madden attended a coaching clinic where Lombardi was the speaker. As Madden tells it, he was quite confident in his football knowledge. Showing up at the clinic, he sat in the back row and settled in for the eight-hour lesson. What he discovered was that the subject of the all-day session was a single play—the power sweep, which Lombardi made famous in Green Bay.

At the end of the day, Madden was astonished by what had transpired and what he had learned. As he tells it, “I went in there cocky thinking I knew everything there was to know about football, and he spent eight hours talking about this one play. He talked for four hours, took a break, and came back and talked four more. I realized then that I actually knew nothing about football.”

So why do I share this story with you? Because there are lessons in Lombardi’s approach to coaching and leadership that are demonstrated in this single story.

Attention to detail. Lombardi spent eight hours teaching a single play to a group of men who were knowledgeable enough to be coaching the sport themselves. I’ve seen clips of Lombardi teaching the power sweep. The coach not only draws up the play but also explains what each player must do, what he should see, and how his role contributes to the success of the play. So very often it’s the little things that make the difference between success and failure. Lombardi tried to leave absolutely nothing to chance. Maybe that’s why he once told his players, “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

Mastery of the subject. Lombardi could spend eight hours talking about something this specific only if he had mastered the subject. He had to know every single detail about that play to be able to speak on it for that length of time. As a leader, that type of knowledge inspires your team to be confident that you understand the business at hand and what it takes to succeed. Lombardi would say, “Success demands singleness of purpose.”

Clear understanding of each person’s role in success. Lombardi was able to speak to what each person on his team must contribute for the power sweep to succeed. Being able to convey to each individual what he or she can do to contribute to success is critical in achieving engagement with team members and getting them to work in concert. In Lombardi’s words, “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”

The importance of teaching. Lombardi was a great coach and a respected leader, but he considered himself first and foremost a teacher. As a manager, you must understand that you are also a teacher. It’s one of your most important roles. You can’t expect your people to properly execute things they don’t understand. Like Lombardi said, “You cannot coach them what they have not been taught.”

This one story told by John Madden reveals so much about what made Vince Lombardi the person, coach, and leader he was. There are lessons for all of us in Madden’s story. His experience that day caused him to go from cocky to humble. Maybe we all need to ask ourselves what we can learn from Lombardi’s eight-hour lesson.