If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired … with enthusiasm. – Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi

I heard the above quote for the first time recently while attending a project management symposium. The speaker, Ron Taylor, was discussing leadership, and his was far and away the highlight of the day-long project management symposium I attended.

Mr. Taylor told of retired Hall of Fame football players welling up when the subject of their old coach was broached. And these were players whom he only coached for one season in Washington, not during his 8-year run with Green Bay. The former players – big, beefy, tough men – got emotional even many years after Lombardi’s retirement and premature death of colon cancer at the age of 57.

What was it about Coach Lombardi that elicits such a reaction, even to this day, more than 40 years after his passing? And for that matter, how did he get his players to play the way they did – as a cohesive unit, disregarding personal interests in favor of team goals – at such a high level?

He was more than just a good one-liner, though in Lombardi’s case, he had more than a few.

Here are some more:

  • “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.”
  • “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.”
  • “We shall play every game to the hilt with every ounce of fiber we have in our bodies.”

And, of course:

  • “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” which, according to David Maraniss’ bookWhen Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, most likely came from UCLA football coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders, who seems to have used it as early as 1949.

Anyway, back to our question. How did Coach Lombardi motivate his players and form his team?

I believe the quote in our headline holds the key. Enthusiasm. Passion. Energy. Drive. Coach Lombardi set incredibly high standards for his followers, invested them with confidence, demanded their commitment and, most important, provided a safe and accepting environment for falling short when those standard were pursued with the proper attitude. This last point is crucial, because players – and in our cases, our employees, project team members, even our children – are far more willing to take reasonable chance, to extend themselves and risk failing, when they know their attempts will be met with sincere acceptance and encouragement rather than ridicule and punishment.

Tolerating honest mistakes, yes. Tolerating a lack of enthusiasm, lack of effort and passion, no. That was the Lombardi way.