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This is a football

Recently about 100 million Americans watched as the Vince Lombardi Trophy was lifted by this year’s NFL Super Bowl champions. The legendary coach for which American football’s highest honor is named passed away decades ago, but his impact on the game and on the lives of his players remains strong even today. Coach Lombardi was the kind of leader that made things better wherever he went, but his most notable achievements came during his tenure as the head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967. Under his leadership, the Packers were by all accounts a conservative team with players of average talent yet they became almost an overnight sensation, so just what was his secret? Lombardi’s strength was in his focus on teamwork rather than individual performance, his genuine love for his players and passion for their development (not just as football players but as people), and his exceptional work ethic which he applied to a dogged pursuit of excellence in the fundamentals of the game.


When Lombardi arrived in Green Bay in 1959, the Packers were a team of perennial losers with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over their future survival as the last of the “town teams” (pro teams that sprouted up in small towns during the 1920s-30s but then disappeared or relocated to larger markets as the league developed). Within two years, they were headed to the championship game which they narrowly lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. When the players showed up for training the following season, they were expecting their coach to introduce a new strategy, changes to the roster, or at least some innovative new plays, but what they got was quite different. Coach Lombardi’s first words were, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” The team would spend the next several months drilling endlessly on the basic skills necessary to block, tackle, run, and pass with the predictable excellence required to win championships, which they did five out of the next seven years becoming one of the great dynasties in professional sports history.


Among today’s organizational leaders, there is no shortage of ambition and drive. Most leaders set their sights on lofty goals for their organizations and work hard to achieve them. They adopt strategies they think will work, which usually include innovative approaches and technologies, personnel and structural changes, and/or new programs and service offerings. These things aren’t necessarily bad, but where many leaders fall short is in their failure to master the most basic of leadership competencies. Things like saying “please” and “thank you,” honesty, empathy and fairness, keeping promises and owning mistakes, holding people accountable, and serving rather than being served (or being self-serving). These are among the fundamentals of great leadership. Those that neglect them are likely on their way not only to a losing season, but also potentially a sharp rebuke from God. After setting an example of what servant leadership really looks like (washing his followers’ feet), Jesus told his disciples that it is not enough to just know these things, they must actually do them in order to receive God’s blessing (John 13:17). 


Reflection Questions

  • In which of the core competencies of servant leadership do you excel?
  • Which ones still need work?
  • How might you intentionally sharpen your fundamentals in the coming days/weeks?

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