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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Coach 'Em Up: Leadership Wisdom from Tony Dungy

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There's been a lot written in the past few weeks about the demise of humility in our culture. (See David Brooks' column last week for one of the most eloquent expressions of this problem.) Fortunately, we still have some great examples of successful leaders who demonstrate humility. One of those is the Super Bowl winning former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy.

I've admired Tony Dungy for a long time because of his capacity to succeed in the high stakes competitive environment of the NFL while maintaining grace and humility whether he's won or lost. Since I'm a huge football fan and Dungy is on the broadcast crew for NBC's Football Night in America this year, he has been on my radar screen a little more than usual these past few weeks.

What brought him to mind today was an interview I just heard with him on Dan Patrick's radio show while I was driving back from breakfast with a good friend. One of the questions that Patrick asked Dungy was, "What would you have said to the new Chicago Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler, after his team's 21 to 15 loss to the Packers in the season opener?" I loved Dungy's response which was (I'm paraphrasing here):

I would have told him that it's OK, this is only one game. This is what the pressure's going to be like from now on and this has been a good learning experience. You can handle it and lead us to success from here. It's going to depend a lot on how you show up in practice and handle yourself in the team meetings because the team is looking to you as the leader. This week's game is going to be really important because we don't want to start 0 and 2. You can do it and you're going to lead this team.
Imagine how you would feel if you were Jay Cutler listening to Tony Dungy. What is the Coach trying to instill in his player with those comments? Some of the things that come to my mind are perspective, reframing the experience as a positive building block, confidence and belief in oneself, direction and resolve, clarity around the stakes going forward and the role he has to play. All of that in one brief sound bite. I'd suggest that Dungy offers a great model for any leader that has to coach up a key player who's coming off a loss or a disappointment.

Of course, the other thing that Tony Dungy has received a lot of attention for lately is the role that he's played in counseling Michael Vick following the prison sentence he served for his involvement in dog fighting. Dungy has a long history of counseling prisoners and he talked about that experience in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last weekend. In that article he shared what he tries to get across with prisoners:

"What I look for, [is] 'What do you want to do from here?' That's something my dad used to tell me all the time. When you're in a situation you can complain about it, you can feel sorry for yourself, you can do a lot of things. But how are you gonna' make the situation better?"
Dungy's emphasis on what one can do to shape the future is an approach that all leaders can and should adopt. None of us can do anything to change the past and we really don't know what the future will hold. All we can do is make the best choices we can right now to help shape the outcomes we hope to achieve. That's true whether you're coming off a season opening loss, ending a prison sentence or trying to get yourself or your organization out of a tough spot.

There are a lot of leaders we can look to for both good and bad examples of what to do. Tony Dungy strikes me as a great place to start if you're looking for good examples of leadership.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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