Leadership Lessons from Super Bowl XLII

Published: Aug 21, 2019
Modified: Feb 12, 2020

By Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D., CSP

Super Bowl XLII was a thriller that kept us on the edge of our seats right up until the clock ran out. Yet, as exciting as the game itself was, the real drama of the Super Bowl occurred before the season event began. The Giants' march to the championship started last summer when head coach Tom Coughlin boldly transformed his style of leadership.

Despite taking the Giants to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006, at the end of last season Coughlin's team was wracked by dissension. The coach was known for his demanding, rigid, and authoritarian leadership style. Players were reprimanded (loudly) and fined for breaking any of a large list of rules, many of them arbitrary (such as the “no white socks with dress suits” rule). Management gave Coach Coughlin one year to turn things around—or else.

Realizing he was out of touch with his team, Coughlin relaxed the rules a bit. He started listening to players and smiling more. He began using terms like “fun” and “enjoyment.” He established a leadership council, composed of the most veteran players, to share information and solicit opinions. He also began holding social events—including bowling nights and casino nights—to encourage team members to bond off the field.

As The New York Times put it, the Giants "achieved their best results by chasing the cooperation of their players, more than by controlling them." Coughlin had to "shed the divisive old-school ways in order to survive near mutiny." (“A Coach's About-Face Transforms a Team,” by Harvey Araton, The New York Times, 2/5/08).

By changing his leadership style, the veteran coach demonstrated the vital connection between leadership and championship performance. Coughlin's fresh approach this season produced a record 11 straight road victories and a stunning upset of the seemingly invincible Patriots. That's outstanding leadership.

A Game Plan for Success
So what lessons can organizational leaders take from Tom Coughlin's example? For one thing, when the pressure is on, leaders have to step up. They can't shift the blame or lay responsibilities on others. But even bold actions in the face of tough challenges won't work if the leader lacks the skills to inspire and guide employees.

I'm so impressed by Tom Coughlin's story because he exemplifies many of the “Keys to Leadership” that I believe are so critical in these demanding times. For example:

  1. Stand By Your Team. Your people need to know you're in their corner, not on the opposite side. Coughlin's support and willingness to change inspired his players, who began talking about having fun playing football again.
  2. Cultivate Relationships. Coughlin’s decision to form a committee of veteran players was a masterstroke that improved communication and headed off future conflicts.
  3. Acknowledge Performance. When reporters asked Coughlin how his new leadership style contributed to the championship, he insisted "This is not about me ... it is about our players and our coaches, and the challenge that you get each week in the NFL."

The success of the 2007 Giants shows what can be accomplished when a leader is willing to adapt. After the Super Bowl, Coach Coughlin admitted, "You have to change, you have to adjust." But managers today seem to find it increasingly difficult to change their attitude toward or handling of employees.

Tom Coughlin and many of the New York Giants exhibited the type of leadership that's typical of a “Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organization.” You can visit our Website to learn about the other "Keys to Leadership."

About the Author(s)

Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D., CSP, is the founder of KEYGroup®. She is past national president of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and is a recipient of its highest honor, the Gordon M. Bliss Award. An active member of the National Speakers Association (NSA), she holds its highest designation, Certified Speaking Professional (CSP). Sujansky has authored numerous articles and books on leadership, change, and retention.