If you're a football fan, you know all about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tied with the Patriots for most Super Bowl wins. Winners of eight AFC championships. One of the most storied franchises in football history.

What you may not know is the story behind the Steelers -- especially the story of Dan Rooney, son of Steelers founder Art Rooney, who over the course of almost forty years built the Steelers into a powerhouse on and off the field.

Dan played the long game: Helping create a revenue sharing model for the NFL that promotes both parity and financial success; turning the Steelers into a brand with genuine meaning; helping to bring football back to Cleveland; advocating tirelessly for diversity and inclusion (so much so that the requirement for NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for key leadership positions is called the "Rooney Rule")... all while working to support peace and economic development in Ireland and eventually becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.

When Jim Rooney decided to tell his father's story, he interviewed dozens of players, coaches, league executives (including commissioners Tagliabue and Goodell), and government officials in the process of writing A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney's Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule.  

If you like football, and business, and inspiring leadership, it's the perfect book for you.

I talked with Jim about his father's leadership style, business perspectives, and the legacy he left behind.

What would you say were your father's biggest strengths?

One was his willingness to step into messy situations. He didn't necessarily crave adversity or discomfort... but he didn't mind being uncomfortable.

Many people tend to worry about what might happen or to dwell on worst-case scenarios.

But much of the anxiety we carry is of our own making. He got that. He would say, "Never create fear for yourself. Deal with the tough situations." 

He didn't mind wading into discomfort, sometimes for a very long time... because that's often when real change comes about.  

He was also rigorous about seeking opinions. Even if he had a sense he wouldn't agree, he went out of his way to find out what other people thought. He loved to hear other sides, to bring multiple voices at the table.  

That approach led to the "Terrible Towel" phenomenon.

Myron Cope, the longtime radio voice of the Steelers, invented the towel.

My father hated it. (Laughs.) He thought it was a gimmick. He was a hard-nosed guy and waving some towel around seemed the opposite of hard-nosed. (Laughs)

But Joe Gordon, our great press secretary in the 1970s, saw the value. He felt the Steelers organization should embrace it and help it become a part of our fan culture. And it definitely has.

My father had great vision, but he wanted you to challenge him. Like Joe: Sometimes Joe and dad would go toe to toe, but in a good way.

Joe later said my father created a dynamic tension talented people crave: They want to be pushed... but they also want to be able to push back. 

Which means knowing when to step in, and when to step back. 

Probably the best analogy is that of an orchestra conductor. A conductor can't play every instrument, but he or she knows what those instruments and musicians can do -- and how they can best work together. 

His goal was to get people in concert: Encouraging, mentoring, motivating, occasionally pushing... and, of course, sometimes making the hard decisions.

That raises an interesting point. Employer-employee relationships in football are tough, especially where players are concerned, because professional sports is the ultimate meritocracy. 

My father was able to balance the objective side with his relationships with players and their families. He undestood their careers were short. He understood the physical sacrifices they made.

He knew that meaningful relationships mattered even more... since hard decisions so often had to be made. 

That's where many leaders struggle. Some are great at making tough decisions. Others are great at building relationships. Balancing both...

My dad could make the hard decisions without compartmentalizing. He could blend relationships and hard decisions. That was one of the pieces of magic he definitely possessed.

He didn't shy away from making hard decisions, but he also had a way of making people feel they weren't discounted in those decisions -- that he genuinely cared for them.

One example is Joe Greene. When Chuck Knoll retired, Joe was interviewed for the head coach position. Ultimately, the job went to Bill Cowher. (Jeff: Cowher was recently announced as a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.)

Joe was obviously disappointed. But several times he's said he respected my father for being authentic with him, for showing care and concern... and for making the hard decision.

That's a big part of my father's legacy: When you're trying to do great things, sometimes things will be hard. He didn't hide from that fact. And he didn't try to shelter others from that fact. 

A leader can never please everyone. But a leader can always show that he or she cares.

Your father was also known for playing the long game.

He definitely felt that what was good for all mattered most, not what was good for one. 

Take revenue sharing. He knew that unless television revenue was shared, teams in Cleveland, or Green Bay, or any smaller media market wouldn't be able to compete.  

Which is why the NFL has far greater parity than Major League Baseball.

Then, in the '90s he pushed to place some of the television revenue into G-3, an NFL program that offers assistance to teams seeking to build new stadiums.

It's simple: Bigger cities can more easily fill stadiums because they have a greater number of potential fans to draw from. That can naturally make a team in a smaller city want to move to a larger city. But movement isn't good for fans, and isn't always good for the league.

He was the architect of a mechanism that in the short run hurt the Steelers, because we gave a piece of our TV revenue to the stadium fund... but it makes for a stronger league, which in the long run benefits the Steelers.

Let's talk about the Rooney Rule, and why it's made an impact outside of football. 

At the end of the day, the difference between the Rooney Rule and many other diversity initiatives is that merit is still the bottom line for the decision maker.

That's why it's successful beyond football. Many Silicon Valley firms use a version. Goldman Sachs uses a version.

The goal is to proactively remove systemic impediments that exist in a hiring process. In our case, it's one candidate; in others, two or more is extremely effective. Hopefully the NFL looks at that more closely, because if you get to two-plus... the likelihood of hiring a minority increases exponentially.

Whenever you cast a wider net, you're much more likely to find the perfect candidate.

Take Herm Edwards. Herm was a Rooney Rule candidate who got the Kansas City head coaching job, went on to coach the Jets, and is now the head coach at Arizona State. He said something to the effect of, "We're competitive guys. Me, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith... we didn't want jobs handed to us. We just wanted to be found by people that may not have seen us."

That's all competitive people want: A chance to be found... and to succeed based on merit.

What do you hope your book accomplishes?

Conversations about leadership and culture are extremely important. We need to have more of them, because those conversations spark change.

I want people to know that you can be a good person and still win. That you can lead with objectivity and with heart. That you don't have to compartmentalize respect for dignity with the bottom line -- that those things can be combined.  

And that when you do, you can make a real difference in the lives of other people.

Published on: Jan 17, 2020
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