Leadership Foundations

Texas Stadium, Thanksgiving 2005

I use sports metaphors a lot in my books and in my talks because I’m a firm believer in the power of sports to teach life and leadership lessons. I’m not alone in that view. Gen Douglas MacArthur famously said, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.” The quote means that the things we learn on the field of play are applicable to life: dealing with adversity, motivating others, perseverance, humility in victory, dignity in defeat.

Football, and Spring Football

Sports is very big in Texas. In Texas, we only have two sports, football and spring football. Ok, that’s a tad bit over the top, but football is probably the most popular sport in Texas. Growing up in Ft. Worth, Texas, the Dallas Cowboys were my hometown team and the men on the team were boyhood heroes. I never missed a game on TV, knew all the names of all the players and most of the coaches, and wore Roger Staubach’s and Drew Pearson’s numbers on my jerseys.

Head Coach Tom Landry remains one of the men I most admire. If you haven’t read his story, I highly encourage it. His book is hard to find, but worth the read. He was a B-17 pilot in World War II, a US Air Force captain who flew combat missions, and then like a lot of veterans came back and resumed his life. He played the New York Giants, and then later as a coach. When the Cowboys franchise began he became the first head coach for nearly 30 years.

Coach Landry on Leadership

A Tom Landry quote I like a lot mirrors my approach to leadership as well. Landry said, “The art of leadership is getting people to do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they want to achieve.” To me, that is the essence of what leadership is about. Many things we’re asked to do as leaders involve things that we don’t want to do. Some things are uncomfortable. We have to work hard, or we have to work late, or they’re tasks that are unpleasant. The art of leadership is to motivate people, and motivate yourself as a leader to inspire people to greatness, despite maybe the unpleasantness of those tasks. Character is built suffering through two-a-day football practice in August in Texas with the knowledge that the sweat and sore muscles now mean success on the field in November.

Mapping Leading Leaders Tenets to Goals of Leadership

In my books Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, I map out the the goals leaders have for understanding their environment with five tenets of leadership. These tenets form the foundation of any leadership approach. It’s these goals and tenets I first learned on the sports field, and honed over three decades in the US Air Force.

TenetsLeadership Goal
IntegrityLittle Things MatterUnderstand that ethics and character contribute to high performing teams
RespectLeaders LeadUnderstand the relationship between the leader and the follower
TeamworkAppreciate the “teams within teams” concept of organizational leadership

When you take those five tenets of leadership, and then you marry those things up with our goals as leaders, as relationship builders, as task doers, that’s where they map out. The first is understanding the ethics and character. This really is the foundation of leadership, right? Because if we don’t have good character, if we don’t start with the foundation of integrity, then we’re going to make decisions later that are going to let other people down, and compromise ourselves.

Respect” and “Leaders Lead,” that’s understanding the relationship between the leader and the follower. It’s that understanding that leading people is about motivating and inspiring people, not merely  accomplishing a task. Sometimes we’re a bit too in love with our spreadsheets. We love to be able to plug numbers in and do math, and get an answer. But we sometimes forget as that our purpose in life is to do things for human beings. That’s what leaders do, leaders take the task that we’re doing, and make it applicable to the human beings that we work and serve, and work for.

The last goal of Teamwork is understanding the idea of “teams within teams”. We had a great chief of staff in General John Jumper a few years ago, and he used to talk about teams within teams, and that’s where I borrowed that phrase. There is room for individual achievement, and we should celebrate that, but we should never forget that we have teammates, and sometimes we have teammates that we don’t realize we have.

On the Fields of Friendly Strife

We can do a lot of leadership and character growth on the sports field – take advantage of the chance to learn those lessons in a benign environment.


Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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