Leader's Handbook

The Wall Street Journal's Sam Walker draws a counterintuitive theory of leadership from some of the world's greatest sports teams 

Published 6 years ago on Dec 09, 2017 3 minutes Read

The reason I flew out to Los Angeles to sit down with Willie Davis was that I believed he was one of the few people on earth who could help me figure out whether coaches are the primary force behind the world’s most exceptional sports teams. As I knew from reading his autobiography, Davis believed that his team owed its success, almost entirely, to Vincent Thomas Lombardi’s motivational powers.

Davis, eighty years old, lived on a hillside in the prosperous Los Angeles enclave of Playa del Rey in a bright modern home with a transfixing view of the Pacific Ocean. After football, Davis got an MBA, owned a chain of radio stations, and sat on the boards of several major companies. He became one of the most business-savvy ex–NFL players of his generation.

Nevertheless, Davis was unfailingly modest and quick to deflect credit. I suspected he might be lifting up Lombardi as a way of downplaying his own contribution. When he finished his story about Lombardi’s halftime address, I pressed him on the idea that a few words from a coach could make an entire team play harder. “Really?” I asked. “Lombardi could do that just by talking to the team?”

Davis shot me a glance and smiled. “I tell ya, Coach Lombardi probably could have been a great minister, because he said things with the voice. Sometimes the voice had a chilling effect on you.” Davis turned away for a moment and stared out the window at the slow-rolling waves. I could tell from the look in his eyes that his mind had drifted back to those faraway football fields.

Then, after a long silence, he let go from the depths of his lungs. “Crap, crap, crap! What the hell’s going on?”

The voice was no longer Davis’s raspy baritone; it was sharp, forceful, and urgent. I knew immediately what he’d done: He’d conjured the spirit of Vince Lombardi. “He could say something and it would just grab you and do something to you,” he said. “It was like he could make you rise to play at a level you didn’t even know about.”

Given that he coached before the advent of unrestricted player free agency, Lombardi had a level of authority modern coaches can only dream about. He could ride the Packers mercilessly, even after wins, without having to worry about defections. If he’d been a coach in a different era, a time when players had more mobility, it’s possible his demands would have scared away the talent. But because his players were captives to the Packers, Lombardi was able to work on them, to fuse their personalities with his.

Davis believed that the quality at the center of Lombardi’s character was an overwhelming desperation to prove his value. He used his words, and the blunt force of his personality, to make this sense of longing contagious. “He dwelled so heavily on that,” Davis said, “until he had every player feeling absolutely the same way.” Even when the Packers were good, they played like a team clamoring for recognition.

There is no question that Lombardi knew exactly what he was doing and that he understood the power of his gift. “It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men,” he once said. “Men respond to leadership in a most remarkable way and once you have won his heart, he will follow you anywhere.” Leadership, Lombardi added, “is based on a spiritual quality—the power to inspire, the power to inspire others to follow.” On another occasion he said, “Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate.”

The depth of Willie Davis’s belief in his coach had been so convincing that I flew home fully expecting that this kind of influence, this Lombardi effect, would be a common theme among the coaches of the sixteen teams in Tier One.