business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

There are many reasons why sports provide a poor metaphor for business. Unlike business, the rules of sports are usually pretty straightforward, the measurements are exact and the principles of competition are limited by salary caps, player drafts and other mechanisms designed to enforce a sense of parity.

But then there are lessons we just have to soak up again and again, which is why I wrote about basketball coach Pat Summitt yesterday and heard from readers with other notable suggestions from the sports world. And thanks to this year’s Super Bowl, one of the best lessons in sports leadership will be front and center for a while. The lesson comes from the very simple reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers deserve to be the most successful team in Super Bowl history.

It comes down to Dan Rooney, the team’s owner.

Hopefully on the way to the game this year, you had a chance to read a profile of this remarkable man with a leadership ethic that all of us could and should emulate. It’s a study in the right way to lead, especially in times of so much turmoil.

Consider some comments about Rooney gleaned from one recent article in the New York Times:

1. Rooney flies to games on the same plane as his team and doesn’t put on any airs about it. As backup quarterback Charlie Batch told the Times, “Not only was he on the plane, he was sitting in the seat that doesn’t recline, in front of the bathroom.”

2. He doesn’t run his team from a distance. “Some owners treat you like a rental property,” said defensive end Nick Eason. “Mr. Rooney comes around. He always sticks his hand out to you. ‘Hey, Nick’— and I’m like, he knows my name?”

3. And his involvement isn’t a cliché, it’s real. “Every team says it’s a family, but it’s bull a lot of the time,” said punter Mitch Berger said. “I’m glad I got a chance to experience the way it should be before everything’s said and done.”

The picture is of a man who stands in sharp contrast to not just most team owners, but also to many business leaders these days. (Is anyone on Wall Street paying attention?) He is a man who seems to lead with humility and hands-on effort in a way that builds a different kind of atmosphere around his team.

And the story doesn’t end there. There is a rule in the National Football League that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching positions. It is called the Rooney Rule because Dan Rooney made it happen. It seems hard to believe that a few decades ago African-Americans were frequently called incapable of playing quarterback in football. This year, the traditional phone call between the President and United States and the Super Bowl winning coach involved two African-Americans. Times change because of people like Dan Rooney.

In truth, there are great leaders everywhere. There are leaders who are involved, caring and down to earth. There are leaders who talk about great change and who make it happen. There are leaders who make their people feel special and important and get great things out of their team again and again.

So in this case, sports do provide us a great metaphor. Because Dan Rooney seems to embody all the elements we all like to applaud in a leader and his team just won the Super Bowl for a record sixth time.

Whether you manage one person or a team of thousands; whether it’s just the deli department or the Pittsburgh Steelers, the principles are the same: humility, teamwork and living up to your words. And, as Dan Rooney’s success demonstrates again, nice guys often finish first.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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