How one football coach (go Black-and-Gold!) embodies consistently successful leadership
From Michael J. Tomlinson (MT), CEO and President, BDI
Read Time: 9 minutes
As a Southern California native, some things, such as my lifelong fandom of the Pittsburgh Steelers football club, defy easy explanation.
What is easier to understand is that lessons of incredible leadership can come from just about anywhere. If you follow organizations who experience sustained success – there’s an excellent chance that effective leadership is at the foundation.
A “Black-and-Gold” diehard with the name Michael Tomlinson myself, you can imagine my delight when Mr. Mike Tomlin was named Steelers head coach in 2007. At the time just 34 years old, Tomlin was the youngest head coach to ever be granted the position in the history of the league – and went on to be the youngest coach to ever win a Superbowl with his team, just 2 years later.
Over the last 16 years, he’s also proven to be one of the most successful, consistent, respected and emulated Top Dogs amongst one of the most storied teams in the NFL (6 Super Bowls and counting, baby!). But why? What’s Tomlin’s secret to consistently leading very young and volatile athletes – and a diverse organization of thousands of team members that supports their play on the field – in an environment of radical, perpetual and transformative change every year?
Let’s check it out in Kenneth Flake’s practical and insightful feature: “Why Mike Tomlin is an Example of Great Leadership.” I’ll include it below for you – I really do recommend that you set aside 5 or 10 minutes to dig into the virtual treasure-trove of leadership principles you’ll read in it. Not least of which I’ll call out here as a preview: that sustained success comes directly from effective leadership.
Truth be told, even I was skeptical when Coach T first arrived in Pittsburgh. He was, after all, younger than ME at the time! What we didn’t know then was that Mike Tomlin was already a fully cooked leader. In fact, the qualities that make him such a great leader seem to be in his very DNA – respect, enthusiasm, open communication and a deep commitment to providing those who will rise to meet “the standard” opportunities to thrive and to lead themselves.
Let’s face it – football is (generally) a young man’s game. In fact, the average age of players is just over 26 years old! What’s been incredible to witness in Tomlin’s approach is his ongoing commissioning of his veteran players – you know, the “older” guys in their later 20s and early 30s. He’s obsessive about developing a culture of on-the-field and in-the-locker room leadership.
Even as he and his position coaches lead forward with their plans and experience, he’s ever in the process of demanding that players be given the opportunity and responsibility to lead peer-to-peer – and even to “lead up.” He’s realized that future franchise success will be nearly entirely dependent on the younger, talented players. How do you GET leadership experience? You play, you learn, and you lead.
It seems to me that there are a plethora of leadership Black-and-Gold lessons to lift here for our organizations, not the least of which is honestly assessing if our own leadership is meeting “the standard” – and perhaps even more importantly, are we equipping our youthful veteran players to do the same?
The Standard is the Standard: Why Mike Tomlin is an Example of Great Leadership
Coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers has an overall record of 154–85–2 with seven division titles, nine playoff appearances, two conference titles and one Super Bowl title in two appearances. He is the only coach in NFL history to never have a losing season in his first 15 seasons.
Tomlin has been successful in the NFL because he possesses the traits of many great leaders. Even though Tomlin is a professional football coach, leaders and aspiring leaders in any profession can learn from his examples. As a leader, Tomlin is fearless, supportive, charismatic and inspirational.
Below are Tomlin’s best leadership traits with specific examples, tips for applying them to your profession and suggestions for further reading and development.
Great leaders are honest and direct with their teams. Mike Tomlin does a great job of being honest with his players and holding them accountable.
“The thing about Coach T is that he’s very, very black-and-white. He’s very, very straightforward,” says NFL cornerback Joe Haden. “He lets you know exactly where you stand. And he lets you know where you stand in front of your peers if you’re not holding down what you’re supposed to be holding down. If I’m doing it, I’m gold. If I’m not, I either got to pick my stuff up or Coach T is going to tell me he’s going shopping.”
Professional Plus tips for being a more direct leader at work:
- Don’t tell team members what they want to hear. Tell them what they need to hear.
- Be clear and concise in your communication.
- Be specific when assigning tasks.
- Be constructive when giving feedback.
- “5 Keys to Being Blunt at Work—Without Sounding Like a Total Jerk” by Kat Boogaard (The Muse)
- “Effective Communication Techniques for Direct Communicators” (Big Think; June 26, 2018)
- “A Beginner’s Guide to Being Blunt” by Kristin Wong (The Cut; January 24, 2018)
- “Have the Courage to Be Direct” by Anthony K. Tjan (Harvard Business Review; November 14, 2012)
Tomlin is a great leader because he is steady during the good and bad times. His consistency was crucial during a challenging 2021 football season when the Steelers were not expected to make the playoffs.
“The one thing I salute Coach Tomlin, win, lose, up or down, it’s always the same attitude,” says NFL wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud. “That’s hard to find. You never change your ways. You’ve just got to find a way to win.”
Another player, Cam Heyward, credited Tomlin’s consistency for calming the team during the 2021 season. “We’re basically canoeing out there,” says Heyward. “We’re out there, just staying level. He doesn’t get out of character. He doesn’t have to do anything different. He preaches the same goals.”
Professional Plus tips for being a consistent leader at work:
- Identify and maintain your core values (but be flexible)
- Watch your moods and mannerisms
- Honor your commitments
- “The Best Strategic Leaders Balance Agility and Consistency” by John Coleman (Harvard Business Review; January 04, 2017)
- “3 Ways to Become a More Consistent Leader” by Dave McKeown (Inc.; December 22, 2018)
- “3 Areas Where Consistency from a Leader is Critical” by David Shedd (Business Insider; April 12, 2011)
Some leaders are afraid to take risks, while others dare to take calculated risks. Tomlin certainly doesn’t live in his fears, and he applies this fearlessness to his coaching. In a game against the Tennessee Titans in 2020, the Steelers had a three-point lead late in the game. Instead of playing conservative on third down in field goal range, the Steelers threw a pass that got intercepted.
The Steelers ultimately won the game, but when asked after the game, Tomlin said, “It’s NFL football. We play to win. We don’t live in our fears. Is it a combat play? Is it tight? Yes, but we have a quarterback that’s been doing that for 17 years. Sometimes you’ve just got to acknowledge that they made the play in the moment, and we desire to and that’s why we’re not going to live in our fears. We’re going to go in those instances to secure victory.”
Professional Plus Takeaway: Fearless leaders aren’t truly fearless, as everyone has fears. Fearless leaders, however, manage their fears better than other leaders. Fearless leaders are also willing to take risks. Innovation requires being able to take risks; hence, fearless leaders are often innovative.
- “For Fearless Leaders, the Journey Never Stops” by Brendan P. Keegan (Entrepreneur; August 10, 2021)
- “Want to be a Fearless Leader? Follow These 5 Steps” by Emily Richett (Inc.; March 03, 2017)
- “The Three Habits of Fearless Leaders” by Liz Ryan (Forbes; January 03, 2016)
During a regular-season game on November 14, 2019, Tomlin’s Steelers were involved in an ugly incident with the Cleveland Browns. Near the end of the game, Myles Garrett of the Browns and Mason Rudolph of the Steelers got into a fight and Garrett ripped Rudolph’s helmet off and swung it at him. This caused a full-on brawl that led to 33 suspensions between the two teams.
Garrett was suspended indefinitely for his role in the incident. At Garrett’s suspension appeal, he alleged that Rudolph directed a racial slur to him before he swung the helmet. Rudolph vehemently denied this allegation, however, and the NFL found no evidence to corroborate Garrett’s claim.
After the completion of the season, Garrett gave his first public interview with reporter Mina Kimes of ESPN which aired on February 13, 2020. In the interview, Garrett again accused Rudolph of using a racial slur, which led to Rudolph denying the allegation again. Tomlin then decided to issue a public statement on February 15 defending Rudolph.
I support Mason Rudolph not only because I know him, but also because I was on that field immediately following the altercation with Myles Garrett, and subsequently after the game. I interacted with a lot of people in the Cleveland Browns organization — players and coaches. If Mason said what Myles claimed, it would have come out during the many interactions I had with those in the Browns’ organization. In my conversations, I had a lot of expressions of sorrow for what transpired. I received no indication of anything racial or anything of that nature in those interactions.
If this support wasn’t enough, two days later, Tomlin went on ESPN’s First Take to interview with Stephen A. Smith about the incident. This was significant because Tomlin doesn’t normally do interviews during the offseason. In the interview, Tomlin again voiced his complete support for Rudolph.
But when these allegations returned this past weekend, I thought it was appropriate that Mason is properly defended. It was a thorough investigation done by us and the NFL…these accusations are serious. Not in terms of Mason Rudolph’s character but his professional pursuits. Nobody on that field corroborated what was said by Myles Garrett…I fully support Mason Rudolph. We as an organization fully support Mason Rudolph and to be quite honest, we were hacked off at what we saw this weekend…I don’t think that was fair to Mason Rudolph and that’s why I’m here.
Mason’s response to Tomlin’s interview was to call him a “leader of men,” which certainly describes Tomlin.
Professional Plus tips for being a more supportive leader at work:
- Stand up and advocate for your team members
- Provide aid when your team member needs help
- Express confidence in your team members
- Remove obstacles or barriers
- “Supportive Leadership: What it Is and How to Develop It” by Indeed Editorial Team (Indeed; March 2, 2021)
- “How Supportive Leaders Approach Emotional Conversations” by Sarah Noll Wilson (Harvard Business Review; March 01, 2022)
Mike Tomlin was the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl before Sean McVay became the youngest after winning Super Bowl LVI. During the week before Super Bowl LVI, McVay was asked about how he would feel if he surpassed Tomlin as the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl.
“One of the things that’s been great about Mike is he’s so willing to share, really put his arm around you and be a mentor and answer any questions that you have,” says McVay. “His leadership, his command, his mental toughness, how that relates to the way that his teams play, the way they respond from the good and the bad, I think he’s one of the best leaders that this sport has to offer.”
Professional Plus Takeaway: Young leaders like McVay seek wise leaders like Tomlin for mentorship because wise leaders are skilled at using good judgment when making decisions. Leaders like Tomlin have sufficient and varied experiences that other leaders desire to learn from.
- “How to Become an Emotionally Wise Business Leader” by Svetlana Whitener (Forbes; January 17, 2020)
- “A Wise Leader Does Not Think So Much” (Lolly Daskal Blog)
During a 2019 interview of Tomlin at a Christian men’s conference called ManUp, he was asked if faith was a part of his coaching. Tomlin responded, “That is my coaching style … I try to display legitimate humility. There’s not enough of it. And boy, there’s plenty of opportunities to learn it. I just try to live that out in every way that I can, to show legitimate humility, and that I got my confidence properly placed.”
Sean McVay also addressed Tomlin’s humility during the press conference before Super Bowl LVI when he spoke about Tomlin’s mentorship:
Any time that you’re in a room with Mike Tomlin, you always know that he’s in that room. He’s got such a great presence, but also humility. And it’s a fine line in how you balance that, and Mike is a great example for all leaders as far as how you are demanding but uplifting to your players, how you’re so steady and so mentally tough in those moments when your team needs it the most, and that consistency that he’s had throughout the course of his tenure there. This guy’s a stud in every sense of the word and really grateful for the mentorship and friendship that he’s provided me since I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the last few years.
Professional Plus Takeaway: Humble leaders are confident, but not arrogant. They use self-awareness to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. They usually lean into their strengths to lead their teams. More importantly, humble leaders rely upon others who are strong in the areas where they are inexperienced.
- “The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders” (Lolly Daskal Blog)
- “We Need More Humble Leaders. Here’s How to Get Them” by Karl Alleman & Julie Kalt (Fast Company; June 3, 2019)
- “How to Be a Better Leader: Be More Humble” by Jessica Stillman (Inc.; January 27, 2016)
Tomlin is a great leader because he recognizes the importance of listening. Tomlin’s ability to listen makes him a better communicator with his players. “People aren’t very good listeners, by nature,” says Tomlin. “Part of being a good communicator is recognizing and understanding that and trying to make the complex simple. I try to capture a concept, an idea, or a moment in a few words. If they remember it, job done.”
Professional Plus Takeaway: Attentive leaders focus on their team members in a way that other leaders do not. Attentive leaders know that their team members often have the solutions to problems that need to be solved. Their team members simply need to be heard. Attentive leaders are very good at listening.
- “Use Active Listening Skills to Coach Others” by Leading Effectively Staff (Center for Creative Leadership; December 2, 2021)
- “Become a Better Listener: Active Listening” by Hilary I. Lebow (Psych Central; September 27, 2021)
According to the Harvard Business Review, “Charismatic speakers help listeners understand, relate to, and remember a message. A powerful way to do this is by using metaphors, similes, and analogies.” Tomlin excels at using metaphors to convey his message to his players. Tomlin even has his own language, “Tomlinisms” that paint vivid images that are easier to understand than literal words.
One popular Tomlin metaphor is “Don’t blink. Cut your eyelids off.” This metaphor can be loosely interpreted as staying hyper-focused. Another popular Tomlinism is, “It’s a fine line between drinking wine and squashing grapes.” This metaphor means that there is a fine line between winning and losing. “The standard is the standard” might be Tomlin’s most well-known metaphor where the message is that he expects a consistent level of effort.
Professional Plus tips for being a charismatic leader at work:
- Embrace vulnerability
- Be confident but not arrogant
- Make eye contact and practice active listening
- Be aware of body language
- Be sincere
- Ask questions
- “5 Qualities That Define Charismatic Leadership” by Indeed Editorial Team (Indeed: December 8, 2021)
- “14 Ways to Become a Charismatic Leader” by Áine Cain (Insider; November 30, 2016)
- “What is Charisma and Charismatic Leadership” by Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D. (Psychology Today; October 7, 2012)
Even away from the football field, Tomlin is inspirational to others. During a 2018 speech to a young crowd, Tomlin used his personal experience to strengthen his motivational message to the crowd.
“It’s not what you’re capable of, it’s what you’re willing to do,” says Tomlin. “I know plenty of people that are capable, I know fewer people that are willing. Will is a powerful thing. Ask yourself, ‘What are you willing to do?’”
Professional Plus Takeaway: Inspirational leaders are committed to their core values and know-how to motivate others to get the best from their teams.
- “Becoming an Inspiring Leader: What You Should Know” by Colin Baker (Leaders; August 11, 2021)
- “How to Practice Inspirational Leadership” by Indeed Editorial Team (Indeed; February 22, 2021)
- “7 Powerful Characteristics of A Truly Inspirational Leader” by Heidi Lynne Kurter (Forbes; February 29, 2020)
- “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek (September 23, 2009)
There is no perfect leader, and it is likely that most leaders, even great leaders, won’t possess every trait above. Great leaders, however, recognize when and where to apply these traits. They focus on the traits that they are strong in and know whether they need to develop the other traits.
Want more nonprofit inspiration from BDI’s CEO? Check out MT’s recent article, “3 Great Takeaways from BDI’s Empower Summit 2022” >>