All Articles Leadership Inspiration In football and business: To obtain the winning edge, instill confidence in your team

In football and business: To obtain the winning edge, instill confidence in your team

4 min read


James H. Quigley is former CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and a senior partner in its U.S. member firm. He is also co-author of “As One: Individual Action, Collective Power.”

The New York Giants were crowned the Super Bowl champions on Feb. 5, beating out the New England Patriots in a close match-up. But as millions of football fans (including myself) adjust to the end of another epic football season, there’s an opportunity for us to look back at this season’s greatest wins and strongest team chemistry — applying what we learn to business leadership.

Most people immediately point to the quarterback as the most prominent leader on and off the field; a major force in determining wins and losses. After nearly a decade of “quarterbacking” as the chief executive officer of a major firm, I’ve learned that effective teamwork — in football and business — is more about collective behavior than individual star power. You’ve likely heard sports-business analogies before. To fully understand this analogy, we must take a closer look at what separates winning from losing.

Effective leaders and teams have a positive vision

To start, let’s look at the San Francisco 49ers, one of this season’s surprising front-runners with a 13-3 regular season, making it to the NFC Championship game. Quarterback Alex Smith was the No. 1 draft pick in 2005, but during his first few seasons and through a series of coaches, the 49ers were not a playoff-caliber team, much less a Super Bowl contender.

When many were losing faith in Smith’s ability to turn his talent into tangible wins — fans even rallied to have Smith traded — recently-hired coach Jim Harbaugh saw things differently. He had a clear vision for his balanced, team-based approach and gave Smith an unambiguous vote of confidence.

This season, the 49ers moved into first place in the NFC West, due in no small part to Harbaugh’s confidence in his team, and his quarterback in particular. When talks of trades are replaced with votes of confidence, it is amazing how individual action becomes collective power.

Before Smith was drafted by the 49ers, he played college football for the University of Utah — a team led at that time by much-revered head coach Urban Meyer. Like Harbaugh, Meyer also believed in Smith’s abilities; he instilled confidence and Smith delivered. Under Meyer’s leadership, the conditions were in place for the team to achieve success with Smith helping lead Utah to an undefeated season in 2004. Meyer and Harbaugh have both harnessed their positive visions to extraordinary results.

Effective leaders and teams have a balanced approach

On the other side of the coin, let’s look at the Indianapolis Colts. Once revered as an elite NFL team and a Super Bowl contender year after year, the Colts suffered through a painful 2-14 record this season — one of the worst records in the league.

Without a confident quarterback on the field, the Colts lost their winning edge. Traditionally, the Colts’ success traces back to their star quarterback, MVP and Super Bowl winner Peyton Manning. But this year, with Manning on the bench due to an injury, the Colts faced their worst-case scenario. Without being able to focus on their star player, the team had no fallback strategy for success, and lacked the ability to adapt to a different style of play.

To regain their winning status during future seasons, the Colts need to regroup and move together as a team, resisting the urge to rely on one player’s strengths and abilities. By doing so, the team — or any team, for that matter — can unleash its full potential and achieve its ultimate goals.

The most successful leaders today, whether they manage football teams or workforces of thousands, know how to establish the conditions necessary for their teams to succeed, and how to galvanize groups of people — not just one or two key individuals — to achieve shared goals.

By laying a foundation of confidence, creating a strong sense of belonging, obtaining strong commitment to strategic objectives and having a common understanding of how to work together, they are able to harness the collective power of their organizations. That’s a surefire recipe for a winning season.

Image credit: oneclearvision, via iStockphoto