5 Things John Madden Teaches Us about Leadership (HBR)

Boom! John Madden has retired from the NFL broadcast booth. With an analyst’s eye for detail but a storyteller’s ear for story, Madden brought the pro game to life, and in the process, helped make the NFL an enduring staple of sports entertainment.

Madden not only excelled in the broadcast booth; he was a successful NFL football coach, guiding the Oakland Raiders to their Super Bowl victory in January 1977. Madden’s outsized but affable personality made him a natural as a TV pitch man. He also embraced the video game business, helping to develop and upgrade annually the EA Sports NFL game that bears his name.

So what can you learn about leadership from John Madden? Let me itemize five lessons.

Commit to what you do. Football coaches immerse themselves in their craft. From recruiting talent to coaching it, along with developing game plans and spending hours studying film, football coaches spend their lives molding players and analyzing those actions. Madden took the same work ethic to the broadcast booth; he continued to study film, meet with coaches, and interview players. Broadcast partner, Al Michaels, noted that Madden never regarded himself as an “ex-coach” moonlighting as an analyst. Madden thought of himself a broadcaster and worked hard at this craft. Like Madden, leaders need to commit to their jobs and do what it necessary to push the team forward.

Innovate as you go. Madden turned the clunky Telestrator, a video graphics tool, into an artist’s pallet for illustrating games from a coach’s perspective. Broadcast professionals respected Madden for his football smarts as well as for his gift to communicate simply and colorfully. Madden also advised on broadcast coverage telling producers and crew about team and player tendencies. All leaders may innovate personally but they need to be open to new ideas and encourage others to think freely and without boundaries.

Tell stories. Madden imbued his broadcast narratives with heart. Digressing momentarily from the action, Madden would spin picaresque anecdotes of players and coaches that gave viewers insight into players as characters who were sometimes funny, odd, even tragic but always very human. He also punctuated his calls with old fashioned expressions like “boom” and “pow,” a style that annoyed some but also heightened his everyman aura. Bosses who tell stories are those who can communicate a sense of humanity to the job that encourages followership.

Love what you do. When he announced his retirement on KCBS Radio in San Francisco, Madden made it clear how much he loved what he did. Football and subsequently its analysis were his life. Work life is hard and if you do not enjoy what you do, avoid it. But if you love what you do as a leader then you will have a fruitful time helping others achieve their goals.

And finally know when to say when. Anyone in a position of leadership who is thinking about a career change or retirement would do well to study Madden. He retired as an NFL coach after winning a Super Bowl and posting the most successful record of any head coach, a record that stands till this day. Madden then pursued a career as a football analyst starting with a handful of games in 1979. Thirty years later the love for the game persists but love of family his stronger. He wants to spend more time with his wife of fifty years, Virginia, and their five grandchildren. His parting comments made it clear that he was not ill nor was he being shoved aside. His contract was in effect for a further three years.

The NFL game will go on without Madden but it will do so enhanced by his legacy as coach, broadcaster, and innovator. Boom, indeed!

 

First posted on HBR.org 4/20/2009