Profiles of ethical leadership in sports coaching: Vince Lombardi

This is the fourth post in a month-long series of five that profile well-known sports coaches as examples of ethical leadership. The first post was about John Wooden and the Pyramid of Success he created while coaching basketball at UCLA. Johan Cruyff, legendary Dutch football player and manager, and the 14 Rules that are displayed at the fields that bear his name worldwide was the subject of the second post. Last Wednesday’s profile was of Jim Valvano, featuring an analysis on his views about leadership and success as featured in lines from his famous 1993 ESPY Awards speech. Today’s post focuses on Vince Lombardi, the NFL Hall of Fame coach, and his views on ethical leadership as expressed by his motivational speeches to his players and the public.

Vince Lombardi was a football player and coach who achieved great success over his 15 years working in the NFL before his death from cancer in 1970. Many critics consider Lombardi to have been one of the greatest coaches in the history of football, and this opinion was borne out in the records of the teams he coached and the accolades he received during his career. His tenure at the Green Bay Packers produced five NFL championships in the seven years from 1961-1967. He was elevated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971 and the NFL Super Bowl trophy was named in his honor. He has been admired and revered by many professional coaches, including the subject of last week’s ethical leadership profile, Jim Valvano. Therefore the effect of his powerful leadership style which will be explored below has been a legacy which has far outlived his own career.

Lombardi is known to have been a powerful, inspiring, and complex individual as a coach. He was known for his fiery, loud temper and authoritarian ways as much as he was for his insistence upon fairness and unconditional respect for the members of his football organizations. He demanded much from his players and in return was passionately devoted to them both as teams and as individuals. He would punish or call out players who did not meet his standards for effort or commitment, but also sought to actively recognize dedication and perseverance, which he upheld as critical values for success and achievement. He was devoutly religious yet open-eyed to prejudice and discrimination, which he strove to oppose with zero tolerance, and he was notable for his largely liberal beliefs.

Following the premature end of his life in 1970, Lombardi has been revered by football’s institutions, fans of the teams he coached, and people in the communities he impacted, especially in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and New York. Plays, movies, and books have been written about his influence as a coach and leader. Lombardi’s enduring legacy has been inspiring statements from speeches he made to players and other motivational comments attributed to him. Collections of these have been published and studied both by people working in sports and by others in all walks of life.

Of course, many of these statements are relevant not just to a football team preparing for a game or a coach seeking to motivate his players, but to life in general, and to a compliance professional interested with inspiring leadership ethics in specific. In this theme, here are five famous quotes by Lombardi, annotated with tips for how to apply these sentiments in defining compliance values for individuals and organizations:

  1. “Morally, the life of the organization must be of exemplary nature. This is one phase where the organization must not have criticism.”– Moral compromise cannot be a consequence of desire for success. Core values of an organization should be sacrosanct and not up for debate or critique which is focused toward diminishing or subjugating them to commercial or external pressures.
  2. “Success demands singleness of purpose.” – As discussed in last week’s profile of Valvano, individuals who drive toward goals with a defined and committed purpose, rather than a base desire for external recognition, are best prepared for true internal achievement that is sustainable and meaningful. Ethical decision-making requires this purpose-driven approach; commitment to values is certainly deserving of that singleness.
  3. “To be successful, a man must exert an effective influence upon his brothers and upon his associates, and the degree in which he accomplished this depends on the personality of the man.” – It is not just coaches who can inspire and elevate others with their examples. All individuals must have personal accountability for their moral codes and must strive to make ethical and compliant decisions. People must recognize the huge impact that their behavior has on those around them and commit to using this influence for the collective good. No person is an island in a culture of compliance. All levels must be engaged – tone at the top, mood in the middle, buzz at the bottom – and individuals must view their own reputations and relationships with others as important extensions of the values of the organization’s compliance program.
  4. “Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.” – In a context where the organizational heuristics lean toward values-based and purpose-driven, individual ethics have a huge impact toward defining broad frameworks for making choices and defining strategy. Unethical decisions and misconduct often originate from environments where employees are isolated from the impact of their actions or where personal consequences are remote and not relatable.
  5. “A leader must identify himself within the group, must back up the group, even at the risk of displeasing superiors. He must believe that the group wants from him a sense of approval. If this feeling prevails, production, discipline, morale will be high, and in return, you can demand the cooperation to promote the goals of the community.” – Awareness and acceptance of personal accountability and consistent articulation of values and rules are critical for imbedding a culture of compliance. For that culture to succeed, leadership must speak up and out, and encourage others to safely and productively do the same. If individuals feel that their leaders espouse values, expect them to embrace those values, and provide a prevailing environment where both really matter, then the culture of compliance will be authentic and enduring.

For more powerful quotes from Lombardi on leadership and inner success, many of which are inspiring from an ethical perspective, check out the official website maintained in his name.

Also, don’t miss the final post in this series, next Wednesday, which will profile Gregg Popovich, who is the current coach of the San Antonio Spurs and is widely admired for his views on inclusion, political engagement, and personal accountability.

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