I don’t know any other way to lead but by example. ~ Don Shula

Chances are you were one of the millions of people that tuned into Super Bowl LIII. Whether you were rooting for the Rams or the Patriots – or just using the event to be with friends and enjoy the commercials – the big game always provides lessons in leadership.

When it comes to professional football players, they have trained their entire lives to compete at the highest levels. Through discipline, hard work, resilience, and sometimes a little bit of luck they have reached the pinnacle of an insanely competitive sport. They are the elite of the elite of the elite.

And once they reach that level, they have a powerful opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

They’re human like all of us. They make mistakes too — messy ones at that! But unlike most of us, they have a megaphone that broadcasts those mistakes to the whole country.

With this in mind, it always strikes me as funny when athletes claim they’re not role models. Because whether they realize it or not, they are. They live on a national stage, and we are all in the audience. The things they are passionate about (from working with nonprofits, to the controversy around kneeling, to the music they like to listen to) reach and impact people in many ways. Their celebrity brings both opportunity and responsibility.

In the same vein, as leaders we’re always on stage too. People watch us. They listen to us. They pay attention to what we do. Like it or not, when you’re on stage you’re always leading by example.

As Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”

So what’s the first step to ensuring that doesn’t happen?

Whether you are a professional athlete or a leader in a growing business, step one is to decide how you want to be seen. What do you want other people to say about you? How do you want them to feel about you? What kind of impact do you want to have? Get really clear on the impact you want to have on others then act in a way that’s going to deliver on that.

Be very intentional about acting in a consistent way that delivers on what you want.

Do you want to be known as an ethical leader? Then you must act ethically. If you want to be inspirational, you must inspire others. Not that you won’t make mistakes, but if you’re able to make a few conscious choices and act in alignment with your larger goals, you’ll be much more likely to accomplish them over time.

Step two is consistently acting on your values.

In all parts of your life. It means being diligent in a wide variety of settings. When you give yourself permission to be inauthentic at work but authentic at home or vice versa, it’s going to be much more difficult for you to be truly effective in all settings.

People often talk about the “real me” vs the “work me” but there’s no difference. You are you whether you’re at work or home. It’s true that a specific environment or situation can bring different things out of you, but you are who you are. There’s no excuse to think ‘oh, I’m at home so I can be a jerk’ or ‘oh I’m at work so I don’t have to care about people’. Don’t over-rationalize and give yourself permission to not live up to your potential.

Much like the discipline that it takes to perform at the highest levels at the Super Bowl, it takes discipline to perform at the highest levels as a leader. Practice, discipline, repetition, and getting back up.

World-class leaders are made the same way star NFL players are. You practice all the time and work at it without end. You never stop looking for all the ways you can be better.


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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