5 Leadership Skills We Can Learn from 5 Great NFL Coaches

By Dr. Robert Prior.

Robert M. Prior, EdD, a faculty member in the Master of Sports Leadership and Master of Science in Leadership programs, has a wealth of experience as a practitioner in the sports industry, having worked at the Olympic, professional, and collegiate levels.

What can leaders learn from the world's best NFL coaches?

Charged with everything from building a team from the ground up to managing strong personalities, there's a lot to learn from star NFL coaches.

These are the leaders who make their living forming a team of people to not only accomplish a difficult goal like winning a championship, but to help individuals grow, improve, and shine. 

Since coaching is very closely aligned with many leadership principles, a number of Fortune 500 companies regularly bring in professional coaches to talk to their companies about teamwork, goal setting, buy-in, identifying your strengths and weaknesses, learning from your experience, and fostering humility and trust. 

 The following are all coaches who I respect as great leaders because they lead by example. 

1. Tony Dungy 

Tony Dungy started out as an NFL player himself, playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49'ers before landing a job as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2001, and then the Indianapolis Colts from 2002 to 2008. He's credited with building up the Buccaneers team that won the 2002 Super Bowl, and led the Colts to the 2007 NFL Championship. Dungy is the model for an authentic, genuine, and ethical leader who truly leads by example and sticks to his personal values, even when the going gets tough. 


2. Bill Belichick

A 38-year veteran coach in the NFL, the New England fan in me would be remiss not to mention Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. In addition to head coaching duties he also acts as general manager, where he makes personnel decisions, a role that has allowed him to establish the "Patriot Way." And what a way it is. With five Super Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl rings, he's an expert in teambuilding and incorporating individuals to buy-in to a team, even ones coming in with less-than-stellar reputations. He brings out his player's strengths and doesn't make any excuses. Like Dungy, Belichick is also not without personal struggles; he was fired from his first head coaching job in Cleveland, but he has made the most of his opportunities in New England. Belichick exemplifies one of the most important characteristics of a great leader: Someone who makes everyone around him better, and who empowers others to become future leaders.

3. Pete Carroll

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll also had some failures early in his career. He was fired after one season with the Jets, but he went on to win two national college football championships with USC and by 2014, lined up two NFC title game appearances and one Super Bowl appearance with the Seattle Seahawks. He's an example of how if you don't let your failures get you down, you can turn them into positives. Taking a hard look at what weaknesses you can improve upon can go a long way, both for yourself and for your team. 


4. Bill Parcels 

A Hall of Fame coach, Bill Parcels coached the New York Giants to two Super Bowl wins, and the Patriots to a Super Bowl appearance during his career. Parcels was more of an authoritarian leadership figure ("you can buy into what we're doing here, or go somewhere else,") but he was very good at finding out what motivated people and bringing out their best. He held a "team-first" approach that centered on the fact that people wanted to be lead. Bill Belichick was one of his understudies, and has many of the same leadership philosophies. 


5. Vince Lombardi

The namesake of the Super Bowl trophy, Vince Lombardi is widely considered one of the greatest coaches of all time, having won five NFL Championships in seven years with the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. Although the game was different back then, his leadership qualities were timeless, and he set the standard for excellence in coaching. His players respected him because he was a strict but fair leader, who brought out the best in his team through goal setting. And when the pressure was on, he knew how to win the big games. 


Finally, honorable mentions go to a few modern day coaches who business leaders and sports leaders can continue to learn from:

  • Jim Harbaugh - Led the 49'ers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013 and three straight NFC title games. 
  • John Harbaugh - Led the Baltimore Ravens to a 2013 Super Bowl victory over brother Jim Harbaugh.
  • John Fox - Head coach of the Denver Broncos. John Fox has led two teams to the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers in 2004 and the Broncos in 2014. 

Whoever you find as your inspiration, it's worth taking some time to reflect on their strengths and what made them such successful leaders.