A Historic Moment

     There is a very good chance that even if you’re only a casual sports fan you’ve heard the name Vince Lombardi. After all, he’s an iconic figure in the field of professional sports whose insightful words and inspiring example continue to serve as a source of wisdom for leaders everywhere. He’s also the first professional football coach to lead a team to win the equivalent of five world championships, including the first-ever Super Bowl in National Football League history. 

     Now, almost 50 years later, we are afforded a rare opportunity to experience another first in the storied history of professional football. That is, the two opposing teams playing in Super Bowl XLVII (that’s number 47 for the non-roman numeral readers amongst us) are being led by brothers Jim and John Harbaugh. Two exemplary men who now find themselves one win away from being crowned the greatest football team in the world. 


      The Harbaugh brothers string of NFL first’s is impressive. When Jim agreed to coach the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, he and John became the first pair of brothers to become head coaches at the pro level. On Thanksgiving last year, they set another precedent, becoming the first brothers to head coach against one another. This was birth of one of the more unique rivalries in all of sports, and it is just beginning. Sunday’s big game is but the latest in a string of impressive opportunities for John and Jim Harbaugh to showcase their unique talents, poise, and above all, leadership.

     Only one percent of youths eventually grow up to play professional football, even fewer make it as head coaches. Although these two siblings took very different paths to reach the ranks of the elite few who are privileged to lead at the professional level, both share a demonstrated willingness to think differently, act boldly, and inspire their players to become the best version of themselves possible. We believe these three traits are the hallmarks of great leaders and as such, we believe this historic moment provides an opportunity to glean several leadership lessons from Jim and John’s superb example.

Think differently—Encourage Risk Taking in Others

     Change is a natural part of every NFL season. Players come and go; coaches are hired and fired; and change happens every year but rarely to winning programs and hardly ever late in the season. The changes and risks taken by coaches Jim and John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers late in the season truly exemplify the meaning of Leadership. For example, Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision to keep his rookie quarterback in the lineup for the remainder of the season after his proven, long-term starting QB returned from injury.  John Harbaugh faced an equally challenging decision. Although his offense had played well enough over the first half of the season, John believed the team was still operating far below its potential. So he took the unexpected step of replacing the offensive coordinator in 10th week of the season and the rest is now history.

The Lesson: Always playing it safe, especially when making decisions that will expose us to being scrutinized, criticized, or even ostracized by others, actually prevents us from being as effective as we could be. It limits our potential and truncates our effectiveness.  Brain scientists have been telling us for years about a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. They’ve discovered that our brains are like plastic and as such, can be shaped, stretched, and sculpted so we can continually expand our abilities and extend our capacities. But this process of growth will not occur by accident. It must be intentional. Meaning, we have to be willing to say no to the status quo and yes to thinking differently about our situation.

Remember, it’s easy to sell ourselves short and lose sight of the fact we are all capable of elevating our game, to play among the gifted, to operate at a level we once only dreamed might be possible. If we allow all the reasons why we shouldn’t act to dominate our internal discourse, then we will join the throng of people who prefer to model the crowd rather than follow their own convictions. The Harbaughs’ examples teach us how breaking free from the prevailing cult of mediocrity demands audacity to abandon conventional thinking and instead, trust our instincts.

The Question: Are you as open as you could be to thinking differently about how you could best lead your team, family, company or life to a higher level?

Act Boldly--Inspire Confidence in Others:

     Despite being only a second year coach, Jim Harbaugh is considered one of the best football coaches at any level in the country. Few would argue differently. In fact, some may even suggest he is one of the top coaches at any level in any sport. 

     What makes the younger Harbaugh so effective is that, in addition to being a brilliant strategist and an incredible teacher, he's also a great motivator whose willingness to make bold moves inspires confidence in his players and staff.  Older brother John is much the same, although his reputation for being a hard-nosed guy who reinforces the importance of setting very high expectations is exemplified in his holding his players to strict curfews and very high standards. “I care enough about the players to be demanding of them.” To not back down from “the values and principles that we think are important.”

The Lesson: The Harbaugh brothers’ willingness to make bold moves in pursuit of their goals stems from advice they received long ago from their father, Jack Harbaugh. "Probably the greatest advice that I've ever been given and the only advice that I've ever found to be true in all of coaching…is “Get ahead, stay ahead.” He translates this advice into practical terms as possessing the moral courage to act boldly and not over-think a situation or squander an opportunity to inspire confidence in others.

The Question:  We all expect our leaders to have an air of competence about them. We want to believe they know what they are doing, and the more we observe their competent behavior, the more our respect and faith builds in them. Are you making the most of opportunities to act with confidence when the appropriate situation presents itself? Is boldness a hallmark of your leadership approach?

Be More--Challenge Others to Become the Best Version of Themselves Possible

     The Ravens aren’t a surprise Super Bowl participant because of where they started--they were considered a powerhouse team when the season began, coming off a near-miss loss against New England in last season’s American Football Conference title game. Rather, they are an unlikely Super Bowl team because of the challenges they experienced during the season. With scores of key players missing games due to injuries, including Hall of Fame-bound linebacker Ray Lewis, the team’s depth was severely tested.

     “We’ve probably never tested it as deep as we did this year,” John Harbaugh said. “Our young guys always came through.” In fact, 24 separate players made at least one regular season start on defense for the Ravens and anything they may have lacked in experience they made up for in commitment, intensity and tenacity. How is it that an injury-riddled team missing its superstar player is now poised to be the world champion? Easy: Their coach had the audacity to push his players to look past the limitations of the present and focus on the possibilities available in the present.

The Lesson: The greatest leaders in the world are focused on progress. They live to make every day better than yesterday. And as a result, they don’t settle for mediocrity.  They continually push for excellence, both in themselves and in those around them. Instead of lamenting all the reasons why things are not as they wished they were, they get busy challenging people in their sphere of influence to raise the bar on their game. They continually strive to get the best out of people, treating everyone as if they too were committed to making excellence the hallmark of their lives.  

The Question: Can you say you are leaving everything better than you found it? If not, why not? More importantly, why not begin making excellence your desired destination today?

     The great Vince Lombardi once remarked that “A man can be as great as he wants to be. If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive, and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done.”

     From our humble view, John and Jim Harbaugh seem to have taken these wise words to heart and regardless of who emerges the victor Sunday; they will both remain leaders worth watching for many years to come.

Historic Moment - Superbowl - MediocreMe.com


This story was authored jointly by Jack Bornhoft and John Michel.

Be sure to check-out John Michel’s forthcoming book, Mediocre Me: How Saying No to the Status Quo Will Propel You from Ordinary to Extraordinary, in bookstores 12 March 2013. You can pre-order it now at a great discount on Amazon or other online retailers.