Dungy talks bottom-up leadership approach
(pictured above: Tony Dungy greets Wake Forest students during his visit to the campus last week.)
Tony Dungy shared the trials and triumphs of his storied NFL coaching career at Wake Forest University last week.
“It’s an honor to be here at Wake Forest to speak to you about leaders,” Dungy told the standing room only crowd that gathered in the 2200-seat Wait Chapel on Wednesday, March 26 to hear him speak. “That’s what our country is in need of. We don’t need more smart people. We need leaders who will stand on their convictions, and I encourage you to do that.”
Dungy, who helmed the Indianapolis Colts from 2002-2008, made history in 2007, when he guided the team to a Super Bowl win. He became the first African American head coach of a Super Bowl-winning team.
He said he follows a bottom-up leadership philosophy that empowers leadership at every level of an organization and creates a strong foundation built on not one, but many leaders.
“I really think the best leaders are people who have a vision and have a focus that is not about them, it’s about the group that they work with,” said the Jackson, Mich. native. “My job as a leader was to help my group be the best that they could be, so I had to take the focus off of myself.”
Dungy spent more than three decades in the National Football League, first as a player and later as a head coach, the first in the NFL to defeat all 32 teams. The former University of Minnesota quarterback is known for his soft spoken manner and unapologetic commitment to Christian and family values.
“Don’t feel like you have to leave your personality behind,” said Dungy, who is now an NBC Sports commentator. “…If you have the right message, your voice will be heard.”
From his vantage point in the NFL, Dungy said he saw many instances where the pursuit of status, fame and fortune took precedence over everything else, often to the detriment of the pursuer. The father of six said he encouraged his players to place a high priority on the things that brought value to their lives outside of football, through initiatives such as Family Days, where spouses and children were encouraged to come and spend time with the players during Saturday practices. Once, while interviewing for a head coaching position, Dungy said the team owner asked whether he would make the team his number one priority.
“I said, ‘Well I will deliver you a Super Bowl, but it’s not going to be the most important thing in my life,’” he related, adding that he was not offered the position. “‘It’s going to be far behind my faith and my family.’”
His unassuming style had many doubting Dungy’s ability to successfully lead a team in the rough and tumble world of professional football. The Super Bowl victory was vindication, proof positive that he didn’t have to leave his values at the door to be successful, Dungy said.
“To represent African American coaches, to represent Christian coaches, but more than anything, to show people that you could do it this way … was pretty gratifying,” he admitted.
Dungy fielded questions from those in the audience and beyond, via the school’s Twitter feed, that drew anecdotes about his greatest disappointments (not being drafted as an NFL quarterback) and the most important lessons he’s learned. A true leader must be willing to accept not only praise for successes, but responsibility for mistakes, he said.
“You have to be ready to admit your failures and mistakes and work hard to overcome them,” he remarked. “That was the thing that I always tried to do with my teams.”
When it comes to winning, there is no substitute for good old fashioned hard work, Dungy said.
“If you want to be good, you have to work hard,” he declared, noting that it is work ethic – not talent – that has truly distinguished NFL superstar Peyton Manning, his former player. “Hard work is the equalizer. Hard work is better than talent.”
Dungy’s talk, a conversation-style forum led by WFU President Nathan Hatch and Andy Chan, vice president for Personal and Career Development, was the first in a new speaker series the university has launched in hopes of expounding upon the underpinnings of successful leadership from the mouths of those who have lived it. The Leadership Project offers an opportunity for the university to connect with the surrounding community, and Dungy was an ideal candidate to serve as the inaugural speaker, because his story is so widely known to football fanatics and non sports fans alike, according to J. Matthew Williams of the Office of Personal and Career Development.
“I think it really is a testament to the impact that Tony Dungy has in the world,” Williams said of the turnout Dungy’s appearance generated. “His message has been just heard and really resonates with a lot of folks.”
The Leadership Project is the latest expression of a focus on leadership development that has been a staple of the educational experience at WFU for some time, Williams said. Strong leadership skills are necessary if tomorrow’s alumni are to live up to the school’s “Pro Humanitate” (meaning “for humanity”) motto, he believes.
“It’s an integral part of what we’re doing here at Wake Forest to prepare students for the future,” Williams stated. “…It’s really helping students discover who they are and how they can channel their strengths and their passions into meaningful opportunities, and how they can use them to serve others.”
Dungy, who was nominated for an Emmy after his first season with NBC’s “Football Night” in 2009, told the audience that serving others is one of the best ways to attain meaningful personal and professional fulfillment.
“I’ve always believed you separate yourself from the crowd just by that desire to help people,” he said. “…If your motivation is to make a difference in others, that’s always going to shine.”