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Wisdom that wins in football and in business

From teamwork to consistency, football has a lot to teach leaders, says Denise Lee Yohn in this video.

4 min read


Business leaders can learn a lot from football.

In this new video, leadership keynote speaker Denise Lee Yohn shares some of her favorite football phrases and how they apply to business.  Take, for example, “Look the ball into your hands.”  This speaks to the importance of follow-through, whether you’re playing a game or leading a team.

Video transcript:

With the NFL season in full swing, it’s a good time to apply some maxims from football to the business world. 

My favorite is the instruction to “look the ball into your hands.”  In football, this speaks to how receivers need to ensure they make a solid catch.  But sometimes, a receiver will be looking at his approaching opponents, pivoting in the other direction or starting to run too quickly, and the ball slips through his fingers.  Whether that results in a fumble or a lost down, it’s frustrating and completely avoidable.

Businesspeople make the same kind of mistake when they move on to the next thing before seeing the existing one through.  Companies launch new products and immediately turn their attention to creating the next new product before ensuring the first one works as it should.  Salespeople may close a difficult sale and then botch the transition to the team who will be managing the account.  Managers provide answers to employees’ questions and quickly move on without determining if the employees got the help they needed.  All these examples show the consequences of poor follow-through:  Critical things — like footballs — are likely to slip through the cracks.

Another phrase from football that applies to business leadership is “calling an audible.”  Quarterbacks call an audible when they change the play at the last minute, usually in response to how they see their opponents’ defense lining up.  Given the formidable competition and fast pace of change in business today, companies should allow their people — especially front-line employees — to call audibles as well, whether to veer from their training, bend the rules when appropriate or develop a new solution on the spot.

But calling an audible doesn’t mean not having a plan in the first place.  And it requires a lot of training, given the split-second thinking, well-honed instincts and calculated risk-taking involved.  So, leaders should ensure individuals are well-equipped and empowered, and team members are well-attuned to each other so they can easily and quickly respond when a new play is required.

Another great gem from the gridiron is “offense win games, defense win championships.”  Now, I know this one has become debatable in football, but I think the general principle still applies to business because of the importance of consistency. 

You see, just like football teams, a company must be able to excel at least some of the time — whether in product quality, customer engagement or value delivery.  Otherwise, it’s not a viable business.  But it’s the companies that consistently excel in one or more of these areas that have more staying power.  Operating with consistency over long periods of time, multiple channels and different customers is hard work and requires steadfast commitment.  But too often, leaders get distracted, tired or simply bored.  And that’s how football seasons and business cycles are lost.

I’m curious what other football adages or analogies come to mind when you think about business.  Let’s get some comments going here!


Tbook Denise Lee Yohn to share leadership lessons and tips with your organization, see her website and YouTube channel.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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