What leaders can learn from Tony Dungy

This year Tony Dungy will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.  His history in the league dates back to his playing days in Pittsburgh.  Ominously enough, he started out as a passed over, undrafted free agent for the team  Upon making the team, he switched from a college quarterback to a professional safety and special teams player.  In his second year, he was on a Super Bowl winning squad in Pittsburgh, and later played out a pedestrian career on both San Francisco and the NY Giants teams before ultimately retiring from the league.

After his playing days, Dungy went on to coach.  He mired in the assistant coach ranks in both college and at the professional level for 17 years, waiting his turn to be interviewed for the head coach position.  All the while, Dungy honed his coaching philosophies of simplification and repetition.  His belief was simple; to optimize outcomes, you have to build trust based teams and intrinsic habits of excellence.  During those 17 years as an assistant, Dungy was invited to speak with four teams for a head coaching position.  All four times, he unfurled his plan of simplification and hardcoding habits into players.  At this time in the league, the West Coast offense was in the maturation phase of its popularity and teams were seeing ever-growing playbooks and new schemes.  Dungy’s proposal was to fraction off the playbook and to learn it so well that, even though the competition knew the plays his team would run, they would be slower than the team and unable to stop them.  He also believed steadfastly that winning was an outcome of the full team, and therefore, believed coaching the 53rd man on the roster was as important as coaching the 3rd man.  After presenting this four times, he received four notifications he did not land his dream job.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things.  They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

It was his fifth interview, with the last place Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that Dungy finally realized his dream of heading his team.  He installed his scheme of simplification, trust, and habit forming from the first day.   He drove fundamentals of trust and belief in each other that the team will execute as they have trained.  He hardcoded the habit of the team into itself.  As a result, the Bucs reformed from one of the worst in the league, to a perennial contender.  As a coach, Dungy went on to record 10 consecutive play off teams and become the first African American head coach to win the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I always coached the way I’ve wanted to be coached.”

What leaders can take from the story of Tony Dungy is that trust and teamwork are fundamental in delivering change.  Also, implementation of complex and dogmatic frameworks may seem like the solution to institutional hurdles, but at times simplification and core training will also deliver amazing results.  Providing teams/departments/units/companies a safe environment to learn and execute is paramount.  Understanding that changing bad habits cannot be done without organization belief that the change is needed and being done in good faith, is core to any transformation from  under-performance to a culture of high-performance.

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