Leadership Lessons I Learned as a Quarterback and Coach

By Skip Hall

Before becoming a speaker and leadership advisor, I coached college football for 30 years, and played quarterback in both high school and college for eight years. That’s 38 years worth of sports lessons, which has proved to be a rich repository for lessons in both life and business as well. 

I often have people ask me what is the most valuable lesson I learned in football. It’s a tough question, and in many ways it’s difficult to answer, but there are three core lessons that stand out. 

During a portion of my career at the University of Washington, our quarterback was a player named Tom Flick. He lead us to the Rose Bowl in 1981. When he started his professional speaking career, we reconnected and talked through many of these leadership lessons together. I’d like to share them with you.  

The Importance of Inspiration
Nobody can be pushed into success no matter how hard you try. People have to learn to push themselves in order to be truly successful. The will to win comes from within. Success is an inside job. We’ve all heard the old adage about teaching a person to fish versus just giving him a fish. The same applies here. Pushing someone to accomplish a task achieves a short-term goal, but inspiration creates long-term success. Inspiration is a way for leaders to help others win; it is not a leadership goal.

Diverse Skillsets Build Strong Teams
Diversity is a team strength and is important to the success of the team. You wouldn’t want a team full of quarterbacks. You can’t depend on any one player or position to win the game. None of us is as good as all of us. Together we win!

This truth is often overlooked in business. Many dysfunctional leaders will make the mistake of focusing only on their own responsibilities, and treat other team members and their functions as separate. Yet a true leader thinks about all the moving parts of the team, and in doing so is aware of the diverse skillsets needed to get the job done. Individuals with separate skillsets who retain a similar focus are more successful. 

True Leadership is About Authenticity
What does it mean to be an authentic leader? Authenticity in general can be a tough thing to pin down, even more so in a leadership position. Leading others doesn’t come down to any tricks or tips, it comes down to being real and addressing the task at hand. Just like inspiration doesn’t occur within a vacuum, either does authenticity. Adopting authenticity is powerful when there are real-world tasks at hand. Authenticity builds trust. One of my favorite quips is the old southern preacher who once said “If you is who you ain’t, you ain’t who you is. Be who you is, not who you ain’t.”  

Ultimately, these three lessons—inspiration, diversity and authenticity—have been the most pivotal in my own career and with those I have mentored. I’ve seen these same lessons play out consistently over the years. 

When you set yourself and your team up for success, that’s when you win the game. The question becomes, will you crumble or will you shine when the pressure is on? As I learned from Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys, how you handle adversity is more important than the adversity itself.