danny white leader

Former NFL Quarterback Turned Motivational Speaker on What it Means to Be a Leader

What does it mean to be a leader? At times, being a leader may seem purely results-driven. That’s definitely a part of it, but so much of what it means to be a leader involves what goes on before, during and after achieving your goals. It’s about what you can do for yourself and for others that makes that achievement possible.

In that way, the football field and entrepreneurship aren’t that much different. I spent 13 wonderful, challenging years in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and learned incredible lessons while I was there. I had the privilege of playing on a team with men like Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson and Roger Staubach, and particularly under the leadership of legendary Coach Tom Landry. A lot of what I learned on the field has changed my life off the field, and I use these experiences to help businesses and leaders achieve their goals.

Here are the qualities that I saw in Coach Landry that will help you succeed as an entrepreneur, no matter what industry you’re in.

Have a beneficial goal that everyone works to achieve

In order to lead a team, you need to know what you’re going after and know that the people you lead want the same thing. For Coach Landry, that goal was always a championship. He wanted it, we wanted it and we were all clear about what it would take to get there. Once the Cowboys were all clear on what the goal was and what we were going to do to achieve it, we took on the smaller steps needed to get there, from conditioning and film study to quarterback school in the preseason.

Setting and talking about your startup’s goals with your team makes sure that you’re all on the same page, whether you’re hitting specific sales targets or training for the next football season.

Related: Former NFL Player Kamerion Wimbley Tackles Entrepreneurship Post-Football Career

Set a perfect example for your team

Now, this doesn’t mean being perfect in everything you do. It’s actually a fear of failure that holds a lot of people back from pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams to begin with. Don’t necessarily strive for perfection in your actions, but in how you handle problems. Real leaders aren’t afraid to go out on a limb or take risks in order to get what they want. They support, rather than punish, risk-taking in team members, even if the end result wasn’t successful.

In my fifth year with the Cowboys, I made a big mistake. We were tied for the division lead and had a four-point lead with one minute left in a critical game against the Washington Redskins in Texas Stadium. I snapped the ball when I shouldn’t have, and it cost us the game. After watching the film the next day, I asked Coach Landry if he wouldn’t have done what I did. He said that it was a perfect play that should have been a touchdown, but that it wasn’t the right time to snap the ball. On my way out the door, just when I was feeling like I wouldn’t come back from this, Coach Landry told me, “Don’t ever change the way you play football.”

There were times when I had taken that same risk that had worked. It would have been easy to tell me to change how I play the game and to avoid taking those risks, but he didn’t. We would go on to win many other games. Without making that mistake, I wouldn’t have learned valuable lessons about timing, and it took a leader open to risk-taking for me to grow as a player. It’s important to take those same risks in business.

Work hard—and keep working hard

If you’re at the point where you feel like you’ve won, congratulations! But your work isn’t done yet.

Working hard isn’t about working until you reach perfection—you need to keep working beyond that. Leaders are important not only in moving a team forward, but in keeping them going while they’re at the peak of performance. It’s hard to reach the top, but even harder to stay there.

For me, that meant avoiding banquet season after Super Bowl championships. So many people want Super Bowl champions to come to their banquets and give speeches when they should be training for the next season. As an entrepreneur, it’s tempting to celebrate an achievement, but you can’t let your guard down. After all, in the game of football, there are other teams looking to take your place at the top, and as an entrepreneur, your competitors have the same objective. Don’t give them that opportunity.

Gain and deserve respect

Respect is all about doing what you expect from others and doing it well. A team can’t succeed if their leader isn’t putting in the effort. The greatest leaders command the highest level of respect because they’ve done the work needed to earn it.

Coach Landry was one of these men. He did his job well and he was genuine: he never once pretended to be someone other than his no-nonsense, hardworking self. He respected our perspectives and innovation, recognized us when we did well, and rewarded our risk-taking. He was the first one to show up to practice and the last one to leave. He was exactly the man that we needed to take us to new heights, one that would truly value our contributions, and, in turn, we valued his. As an entrepreneur and the leader of your business, it’s important that you embody the traits that you’d like your team members to possess.

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Create synergy in your team

In both business and sport, teams are comprised of all kinds of people with all kinds of personalities. It takes different types of people and different skill sets to move a team forward, and it might take time for them to get accustomed and have the confidence to trust in each other’s abilities. The takeaway is that there’s value in teamwork and leveraging one another toward success.

A great entrepreneur knows that they can’t do all of the work on their own, and know the value of a cohesive team. Great leaders will inspire everyone to work toward a common goal that they could never have accomplished on their own.

Attract like-minded people

All goals start with a vision, and that eventually becomes your company’s philosophy. Make sure that your philosophy is a winning one, because that’s what’s going to draw in your team members (not to mention your customers). As long as your vision is true to you and what you want to accomplish, you’ll draw in like-minded people that believe in those same goals.

On one occasion, I asked Coach Landry about the secret to his success as a coach and he started drawing what looked like a diagram out of a physics textbook. It was a molecule with particles inside and he talked about how those particles could be moved where you wanted them with electrical charges. At a certain point, called “critical mass” in physics, if you line up enough particles, the rest will fall into place.

At a certain point, if you stick with your entrepreneurial vision and attract the right kinds of people, everything will start lining up, and you will create a winning environment.

Whether you’re in the startup world or on the football field, leadership is all about creating an environment, like Coach Landry did, where people respect one another, have confidence in each other, and share goals. Only then can you be the leader that your team needs to succeed.

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