The Super Bowl’s Inspirational Leader

The Super Bowl’s Inspirational Leader

Forget about winning the Super Bowl this Sunday. New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin is demonstrating to the world what a winning approach to 21st Century leadership looks like.

As much as it pains me to admit this given that I am a fan of the San Francisco 49ers (who were knocked out of the playoffs by the Giants), Coughlin exhibits the inspirational leadership necessary for creating sustainable growth and resiliency and  innovating and thriving in the office, not just on the field.

I have previously chronicled Coughlin’s conversion from a 20th Century command-and-control disciplinarian to a 21st Century inspirational leader. I believe his journey back to the Super Bowl is equally instructive because it illustrates the human dynamics that all of our individuals, teams, companies and institutions need in order to win in a more interconnected and interdependent world.

Before the 2007 season, Coughlin was nearly fired as the Giants coach. He recognized that his autocratic leadership style – modeled on the habits of historically successful football “field generals” who got results by being highly demanding and screaming at their players – was not creating the conditions for success on the field.

So Coughlin transformed his approach … and the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.  For example, he initiated one-on-one interview sessions with Giants players, staff and even journalists to candidly discuss his methods and how he could improve them; he created an 11-player “leadership council” to gauge the Giants’ needs and develop better communication between coaching staff and players. He introduced team-building initiatives, canceling a training session in favor of a bowling night, and invested more time in regularly huddling with players to learn about their families and their lives away from football.  Coughlin’s transformation had a game-changing effect on his players. Giants Center Shaun O’Hara told Sports Illustrated, “He was always very old school about his approach, very Lombardi-like. He had to be Scrooge. I think he has learned now that the players in this day and age respond better to a coach… who is a little bit more human.”

This leadership style is succeeding because the era of one-way conversations is over. Leaders have discovered that they can no longer rely solely on carrots and sticks to exert power over people; instead, they need to “connect and collaborate” through two-way conversations to generate power through people. As power shifts to individuals, leadership itself must shift with it — from coercive or motivational leadership that uses sticks or carrots to extract performance and allegiance out of people to inspirational leadership that inspires commitment and innovation and hope in people.  Ironically no industry illustrates that connect-and-collaborate leadership inspires the best in people than professional sports, a realm where you try to be bigger stronger and faster than the other team so that you can outscore them and one where too big to fail thinking once reigned supreme.

Coughlin’s inspirational leadership is also tough (tough enough to coach on one leg, after a player collided with him on the sidelines of a recent game against the Jets).  As recently as December, when the Giants were 7-7 and in danger of missing the playoffs, many fans misguidedly called for Coughlin to be fired. By contrast Giants owner John Mara has said that Coughlin has a job as long as he wants (a rare display of loyalty in the cutthroat realm of professional sports).

What fans witnessed in the ensuing weeks was a team that did not collapse under pressure. Instead the Giants, under Coughlin’s inspirational leadership, demonstrated resiliency, winning the final two games of the season to make the playoffs and then winning three consecutive playoffs games to earn a trip back to the Super Bowl. The team stuck together, and it did not surprise Coughlin who recently said, “These guys have been able to really create a very strong business-like approach to what they’re doing. Whether you use the word fellowship or whatever word you want to use, there’s a strong, strong feeling among this group. It’s been a great source of pride for all of us as coaches.”

More leaders, on the football field and off of it, are seeking new ways to experience similar success, the source of which is an inspirational form of leadership that is best suited to address the political, economic, and environmental upheaval that confronts us today.

Coughlin’s transformation to a connect-and-collaborate leader made for a compelling story four years ago. Now his team’s journey back to the Super Bowl, thanks in large part to the loyalty, resiliency, ethic of team and unity that his approach engenders, ought to inspire leaders to embrace a similar transformation today.

Originally published on

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