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Leadership Lessons from Legendary Steelers Coach Chuck Noll

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Chuck Noll became the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969. The Steelers were a terrible football team at the time. In the ensuing decade, Noll transformed the Steelers into one of the most dominant franchises in the history of professional sports. He won four Super Bowls, more than any other coach in the history of the NFL. Today Noll is considered to be among the greatest football coaches of all time.

I’ve been reading Their Life’s Work, an excellent book by Gary Pomerantz, a journalist and nonfiction author. Pomerantz documents the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers—Mean Joe Green, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert—and I enjoyed reading about Noll’s approach to leadership.

He was not a warmhearted coach who delivered glowing motivational pep talks. As Pomerantz writes, “His door was always open, but his personality was closed.” The paradox of Noll was that he was intensely personal. “He figured out your button, and pushed it.” Think Bill Belichick, not Pete Carroll.

“[With Mean Joe Green] he pulled a chair in front of [his] locker room cubicle—he was nearly inside the cubicle—and spoke softly to his star defensive tackle, face-to-face, man-to-man. With Dwight White… [he] went head-to-head… in The Dozens, an insult-swapping game with deep roots in black culture.” In another episode, when a group of players were reviewing film, Noll called out the defensive back J.T. Thomas for running too slow. “I don’t see that 4.4 speed going down there… and I know that you’ve got it.” Knowing Thomas was in the team’s Bible study group, Noll stole a line from Matthew 5:5: “But you know what they say… the meek shall inherit the earth.” According to Pomerantz, “Thomas knew that he was alone in understanding this reference.”

Noll’s approach to the Steelers mimics one theme from Walter Isaacson’s latest book The Innovators. “Inventions,” Isaacson writes, “sometimes occur when people are confronted with a problem and scramble to solve it.” During these grueling moments, when a deadline is looming or a budget shrinking, people like Noll are pivotal.

When Al Alcorn of Atari asked Steve Jobs to engineer a one-player version of Pong, Jobs turned to Steve Wozniak to complete the circuit design. Woz thought it would take weeks, but Jobs convinced him that he could do it in four days, which he did. Bill Gates was an equally fierce collaborator. Like Jobs, he made brutal demands on his colleagues so Microsoft could meet software deadlines and beat competitors to the market. The digital age is a testament to the power of collaborative teams, but without resolute leadership, I wonder how companies like Microsoft and Apple could have survived.

The irony is that this somewhat vicious style runs counter to just about everything contemporary business books advocate. We detest assholes and abhor command and control management as old fashioned. Some business theorists recommend that leaders get to know subordinates not to exploit their weaknesses but to account for them. Yet as I type this sentence on my MacBook Pro, I find it difficult to condemn Jobs’ merciless and mercurial style. Being an asshole is not a prerequisite for success, but sometimes, it helps.

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Books Mentioned in this Post

Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers

Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers by Gary Pomerantz

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

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