When a coach of Tom Coughlin's magnitude steps down, it's easy to summarize his leadership legacy in terms of championship trophies.
Yet there's much more to leadership than end results. In fact, in Coughlin's case, you could argue that his finest moments as a leader came in decisions he made prior to winning two Super Bowls as head coach of the New York Giants.
Yes, results count, in football as well as business. But the best way to judge a leader is by evaluating the decisions he made in pursuit of those results. Here, in my view, are the best leadership moments of Coughlin's career, which (in addition to his 12 years with the Giants) includes successful stints with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1995-2002) and Boston College Eagles (1993-1995).
Before we get to the list, let me explain my criteria: The act of coaching, in any sport, is filled with moments where your job is to make the obvious decision. Great coaches--and great leaders--excel at making the right call when the situation is difficult or ambiguous. Here are three business lessons from Coughlin's leadership choices, each of which corresponds to a situation when Coughlin made the difficult (and correct) decision.
1. Motivate your employees to give their best effort under all circumstances.
About eight years ago, the Giants hosted the New England Patriots in the final week of the regular season.
Technically, the Giants had little to play for. They were 10-5 entering the matchup. Win or lose, they were going to the playoffs and visiting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a wild-card game.
But Coughlin kept his foot on the proverbial gas pedal. At the risk of injuring his star players prior to the postseason, he played to win. The Giants gave the undefeated Patriots all they could handle, but eventually lost, 38-35.
Still, the close game proved to the Giants that they were capable of playing with anyone--even the mighty Patriots. "We didn't win the game, but if you saw everybody in the locker room, everybody was excited," quarterback Eli Manning told ESPN after the game. "I never saw a locker room so upbeat after a loss because we played so well, did some good things and hung in there in a game where we didn't have to play. We wanted to. We wanted to come out and play well, and we did that."
Sure enough, the confidence helped the Giants surge through the playoffs. In Super Bowl XLII, they took on the Patriots once again--and this time, they prevailed, giving Coughlin arguably the crowning moment of his career. All because he persuaded his employees to do their best as a matter of principle.
2. Listen and change in response to employee feedback.
In 2004, Coughlin's first year coaching the Giants, he was charged with reversing a culture which had led to a last-place finish in 2003. One of his first steps was instilling new levels of discipline, structure, and accountability.
While the team needed a kick in the ass, some of Coughlin's hard-charging rules were rubbing veterans the wrong way. For instance, it's common in the NFL to fine players who are late to meetings. Coughlin fined players for not being five minutes early. When he fined Strahan, a superstar who at that point was in his 12th season, Strahan snapped. In a public confrontation in front of the whole team (recounted in Strahan's biography, Inside the Helmet), Strahan says he told Coughlin: "Coach, you're losing this whole team."
Faced with Coughlin's situation--the old troops bristling under new rules--many leaders would've doubled down on the discipline. My way or the highway. Coughlin eased up on some rules. And he used the incident as a chance to build a stronger rapport with Strahan. Instead of fearing that he'd be perceived by the players as weak, Coughlin showed his vulnerability--that he wasn't perfect, and that, he, too, could improve at his job.
The team responded to him with more passion, from that point on, in part because they saw he wasn't the inflexible martinet he first seemed to be. From that point on, Strahan became a player Coughlin entrusted to get his message across. The Giants began to build the culture that would ultimately lead to the victory in Super Bowl XLII.
3. Believe in your own ability to build something from nothing.
Prior to taking the job as head coach and de facto general manager of the Jaguars in 1994, Coughlin had never worked as a head coach or even a coordinator at the NFL level. Many viewed his leap to the NFL level as a risk. The Jaguars, at the time, were an expansion team: They had no players and no infrastructure, other than the one Coughlin would soon build for them.
And boy, did he build one. In a league that has struggled to find talented quarterbacks, Coughlin found his quickly, obtaining backup Mark Brunell from the Green Bay Packers for a 3rd and 5th round draft pick. Brunell would go on to make three Pro Bowls with the Jaguars. Coughlin's first draft pick, offensive tackle Tony Boselli, made five-time Pro Bowls. What's more, Coughlin signed wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell for bargain prices. Under his watch, both players made multiple Pro Bowls.
Taken together, this collection of talent produced an astounding level of success. In just their second season, they won two playoff games, making it to the AFC championship before getting knocked out by the Patriots (who happened to be coached by one of Coughlin's mentors, Bill Parcells). That was just the beginning of Coughlin's superb tenure with the Jaguars. Over the next three seasons, he'd produce a record of 36-12, again reaching the AFC title game in 1999.
All because he had the nerve to take a start-from-square-one job that might have scared other candidates away. He didn't deliver a title to Jacksonville, but he came very close. And when the Giants hired him in 2004, they were getting a coach who--in the span of a decade--had made his NFL leadership credentials almost impeccable. The only thing missing was a championship ring. That would change soon enough.