Make sure to be ‘brilliant at the basics’

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

My uncle was a linebacker for the Packers when I was a kid, so we’ve been big fans as long as I can remember. But you don’t have to be a Cheesehead to appreciate some of the wisdom Vince Lombardi left behind.

A mantra I hold dear comes from his 1958 response to the press after taking over as coach of the fledgling Green Bay team. Naturally, the media wanted to know how he planned to turn it all around. He said,


“I am not going to change anything. We will use the same players, the same plays and the same training system. But we will concentrate on becoming brilliant at the basics.”


Brilliant at the basics.

Too often, it’s the small, dare I say, obvious stuff that trips us up.

In my life lately, that basic stuff has included a late bedtime that knocked me off my game before a big presentation, transposing two tiny digits in an important phone number, a typo in a proposal I had worked on for months … . I could go on. As someone who gives a lot of advice, it’s probably ill-advised to call attention to the lesser parts of myself. But I think I’m among friends. We all do this.

We get focused on making sure the big, complicated tough stuff is intact, only to miss the basic thing. The first thing. The most fundamental thing.

This is why I love the way Lombardi set the tone before training camp each year, holding the football in his right hand and proclaiming, “THIS IS A FOOTBALL!”

These were some of the best (and best-paid) professional football players on the planet. He didn’t start with the basics to insult them, but to ground them in the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Exercise the fundamentals and success will come.

As a leadership consultant, I’m inclined to coach my clients the same way, leaning in often to say, “THIS IS A HUMAN.”

With the spirit of the new year in our sails, let’s begin again with some leadership basics:


This is a leader.

A leader is someone who takes responsibility for the potential he or she sees in others, harnessing human energy to make an impact. A leader can be anyone in your organization.

This is you.

The No. 1 rule: Know thyself. The most critical competency good leaders share is self-awareness. Most people believe they’re already self-aware, but research shows only 10%-15% of us actually fit the criteria. So we need objective data from good tools to see ourselves more clearly. If you’re still walking around trying to lead without any objective understanding of how you’re being perceived by the people you want to influence, you’re behind.

This is a human.

Your needs are likely not the same as his or hers. Remember, the Golden Rule doesn’t work at work. Don’t treat a person the way you want to be treated. Treat them the way they want to be treated.

This is connection.

With self-awareness comes self-management. It’s the key in the lock of confidence and productivity. The choice to respond (rather than react) to an individual based on his or her unique inherent motivating needs is the first step toward true engagement. And we must courageously and kindly engage people who are nothing like us to truly go the distance.

This is trust.

Trust and shared purpose result when both technical competence and connection are high in partnerships. Individual growth is accelerated when people believe there is a solid foundation of trust and shared purpose. Always build this before you address performance.


All complex business problems lead back to basic people problems. Just this morning, I sat with a highly competent CEO who had invested heavily in the creation of a strategy last year, but it’s not driving the results he had hoped for. I asked simply, “How have you made sure your team understands the strategic direction and their roles in that plan?” After a long pause, he said, “I haven’t, yet. We’ve been really busy.”

All the long, expensive, brain-frying work of mapping the strategy were behind him. But the basic step of communicating that plan had stalled somewhere. This kind of brilliance seems obvious and easy. It doesn’t require Dalai Lama-like emotional intelligence. It’s free. And it’s the linchpin between the past and the future.

So I channeled Lombardi. “THIS IS A TEAM,” I said. “You can’t win alone, so let’s get brilliant at the basics.” Know yourself. Know your people’s needs. Connect in ways that are motivational to them, and that build trust and shared purpose.

Then, go get back to the hard stuff.

Read More

If you’re looking to get “back to the basics” in developing your leaders, read “3 Keys to Help Develop Your Leaders” by Leadership + Organization Development Manager Brian James.

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on March 6, 2020.