When Vince Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers in 1959, things had been going badly there for quite a while. For more than ten years, the team had been on a downward slide. The year before Lombardi took over was their worst season ever. They won only one game. They were so bad that the year’s top draft pick opted to play in the Canadian league rather than at Green Bay.
The Packers improved to seven wins and five losses in Lombardi’s first year, 1959. In his second year, the Packers won eight games and lost four while winning the NFL’s Western Conference Championship. In 1961 the Green Bay Packers won the NFL Championship.
Lombardi was the coach of the Packers for eight years. In that time, they won six division titles. They won five NFL championships, three of them in a row, and the first two Super Bowls. Overall, the regular season record of the team with Lombardi as coach was 98-30-4.
That’s dramatic success. What might account for it? Most business authors favor one or more of three explanations for success like this.
Three Common Explanations for Dramatic Success
Many business authors think a sophisticated, brilliant strategy is the key to success. They would say that Lombardi must have created a great strategy that helped the Packers vanquish other teams. But, other teams knew exactly what the Packers were going to do. “We have very little trickery,” Lombardi said, “We really don’t need it.” It had to be something else.
Other authors think that upgrading talent is the key to success. But more than half the players on the 1959 team had been part of the woeful 1958 team. And five of the players on the 1958 team would wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It had to be something else.
Then there are the business authors with a “Curly Washburn” solution. Curly was the character in the movie City Slickers who told the dudes that the secret of life was “just one thing.” For business authors, it’s the current fashionable one thing. Today’s favorites are innovation, going boss-less, and anything “neuroscience.” But there wasn’t any one, magical thing. Again, it had to be something else.
When Lombardi took over in Green Bay, he didn’t create a bold new strategy. He didn’t change the people. He didn’t come up with a magic fix. What he changed was what we commonly today call “culture.”
Culture is “the way we do things around here.” Culture is the sum and interplay of the key values of an organization, expressed in behavior. You change a culture by being clear about the values you want to live. Vince Lombardi wanted the Green Bay Packers to have the culture of a championship team.
To create that culture, he demanded behaviors of discipline, routine, and hard work. He rewarded the players who wanted to be Packers enough to do it Lombardi’s way.
If you were going to be a Green Bay Packer, grueling physical workouts got you ready to play. “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” said Lombardi. The fit players of his Packer teams were a stark contrast to the out-of-shape players of just a year before.
If you were going to be a Green Bay Packer, you would have to give it your full effort every day. “We shall play every game to the hilt with every ounce of fiber we have in our bodies,” said Lombardi.
If you were going to be a Green Bay Packer you were always trying to execute a little better. “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect,” said Lombardi, “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 were going to be a Green Bay Packer, you were going to act like part of a team. “Teamwork is what the Green Bay Packers were all about,” said Lombardi. “They didn’t do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another.”
Vince Lombardi’s Most Important Lesson
Too many people think the big thing to learn from Vince Lombardi is the kind of culture he created. That’s not the most important thing. The culture that Lombardi instilled in the Green Bay Packers might not be right for you or your organization.
The most important lesson is what he did to create the change from the culture of a losing football program to a culture of champions. It wasn’t easy.
You have to identify the values that guide the culture. You have to determine the behaviors the demonstrate the values. You have to articulate those values and behaviors.
That’s where too many leaders stop. It’s the easy part. Vince Lombardi didn’t stop there. He did two more things you have to do to create a strong culture.
You have to model the behavior you want from others. You have to enforce your values.
Even when you do all those things, you’re not done. You have to do it over and over again, day after day after day, with unremitting diligence.
Changing a culture is not something you do on a weekend retreat. It’s not something you do by just talking about it. Vince Lombardi did the hard work to transform the culture of a losing football team into a culture of champions. If you want the same kind of results you will have to do the same kind of work.
More From Wally Bock
In addition to writing the Three Star Leadership blog, Wally Bock is an author, ghostwriter, writing coach and book doctor. In his past lives he has run a small publishing company, been a popular keynote speaker to audiences around the world, and served as a U. S. Marine. He loves good beer, good friends, and good stories.