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Tomlin’s Touchdown: Leadership as Standard Business

Since the Super Bowl I’ve been thinking a lot about Coach Mike Tomlin.

Football is not my sport (people knocking each other down on purpose?!?), so I’ve never been that interested in the Super Bowl, especially when there’s no New York team in contention. Super Bowl Sunday has always seemed like nothing but an excuse for lots of snacks and beer, sort of the way Valentine’s Day is an excuse for flowers and chocolates (not that these are bad things, of course).

But this year, beyond the fun of cackling at the ads, I actually got something out of watching the game: an introduction to Coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Oh, I admire this man!

He’s cool and thoughtful under pressure. Consistently encouraging to his team. Expressive yet circumspect. And that was just during the game!

The score could have gone either way, and it didn’t go his. Other guys in his spot have blamed the conditions, criticized their team, or complained about the officials’ calls (certainly there was room for that in this game). But a couple of Coach Tomlin’s post-game comments (the italics are mine) showed real leadership in the face of loss:

  • When asked about his quarterbacks’ insufficient performance against the Green Bay Packers: “It was a losing one — just like mine.” Leaders protect their people from unnecessary potshots and take responsibility for the group outcome. Tomlin’s message: Don’t single out one of my stars if he wasn’t starry enough. I’m the guy in charge and his success or failure is mine — not his alone.
  • When asked if there were problems with the artificial turf: “They played on the same turf that we played on. We’re not in the business of making excuses. We won’t do it. Next question.” Leaders face reality instead of looking for scapegoats.

But here’s the Coach Tomlin quote that really did it for me.

In one of those standard, stupid, looking-for-the-emotion, post-loss interviews, one interviewer tried to present the moment outside the Steelers’ locker room as the players returned, theoretically licking their wounds, as being touching. The reporter referred to Coach Tomlin’s having acknowledged every Steeler individually and thanked each of them for their work during the season.

Of course I was impressed by the coach’s gesture to his team. It’s so important to show respect for each person’s effort, to make that personal connection about commitment and gratitude — which is the real demonstration of leadership — even if things hadn’t turned out as hoped or planned.

But Coach Tomlin’s response to the reporter raised his score even higher. He seemed completely uninterested in this back-handed effort to praise him, and responded, shaking his head, “That’s standard business. We do that after every game.”

That’s when I cheered! What a demonstration of leadership — a norm of personal recognition, not just for big plays, but for showing up and doing what you’re supposed to do and giving what you’re supposed to give. If only Coach Tomlin’s attitude and stance could become as popular as the NFL image and the team jerseys, or the tradition of making snarky comments about the Super Bowl ads and halftime show.

Forget the chili and the Buffalo wings — this guy is hot stuff!

Go, Coach!

Onward and upward,


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One thought on “Tomlin’s Touchdown: Leadership as Standard Business

  1. Terrific metaphors Liz and all so very true. The Steelers beat my beloved Jets and I was (and am still) bitterly disappointed. But Mike Tomlin exhibits such class and leadership I have only the highest admiration the way he conducts himself and leads his team. Two Super Bowl appearances for his team in his first three years are evidence of his worth. I hope the Rooney family appreciates the kind of leader they have. We can all take a lesson from Mr. Tomlin.

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