TKP2 – Michael Lombardi

Michael Lombardi joined Shane Parrish to talk about the four elements of leadership, good systems, and what a week in the NFL is like.

Just a programming note, this was not a James Altucher podcast. James consistently has great interviews, but I’d like to expand to more smart people figuring things out. If you know of someone, do get in touch.

Lombardi is an NFL executive, currently with the New England Patriots though he’s been throughout the league, from Oakland to Cleveland. He tells Shane that he started small, playing football at Hofstra and attending any coaching clinic he could find. That led to an unpaid position at UNLV and he was off. Slowly for sure, but off none the less.

When you want to accomplish big things – Lombardi was looking up to Vince Lombardi of all people – it’s hard to start small, but that’s the only place to start. Sam Shank (episode #78) started Hotels Tonight with only a handful of properties. Rick Ross (episode #115) started selling crack on the street before he was ever on top. Maria Popova (episode #89) began Brain Pickings with an email to seven people.

Stephen Dubner (episode #110) writes that starting small has four specific benefits:

  1. Small questions are less often asked and may be virgin territory for discovery.
  2. Big problems are dense and intertwined small problems that have to be solved first.
  3. Small problems have a smaller mass and easier to change.
  4. Thinking big leads to more speculation, small problems can have a more accurate observation.

It was #3 that was especially true for Lombardi. “There’s a fine line between producing work and learning,” he tells Shane. At the highest level, there’s always work to be done and finding time to get better can be hard. The NFL, according to Lombardi, “is similar to chess.” You have to dive deep and have a rich knowledge of the three key aspects of the game (offense, defense, special teams) as well as the nuances of the different positions.

Alex Blumberg (episode #70) is a good example of diving deep. Blumberg is a skilled radio reporter, working for shows like This American Life. But when the TAL team tried to take the show to television, it wasn’t as successful. Blumberg says that they failed to achieve the same relevancy because storytelling on the radio is different from storytelling on television.

Comedians have shared this insight in a more specific way. Carol Leifer (episode #68) and Brian Koppelman (episode #98) both told stories about hecklers, and how each learned to shut them down without losing the audience.

Lombardi says leadership is the one skill that solves these small problems and good leadership has four elements.

  • Management of attention. You must be able to get people to follow you because you “have a plan.”
  • Management of meaning.  You must be able to “explain your plan clearly and concisely.”
  • Management of trust. You must “be consistent, and not have double standards.”
  • Management of self. You must be able to “self-correct.”

Within these four areas is the key to a successful system. The west coast offense (a popular and successful NFL system in the 1980’s*) worked within these four areas. Bill Walsh, Lombardi explains, had the plan and a way to explain it. When it was time to practice the system he did so consistently and when the team lost there were procedures to identify why.

Each of these things, says Lombardi, “have to be time tested.” This is one of the favorite tools of Nassim Taleb as well. Taleb applies this from the simple (drink only things that have been around a long time like water, wine, and coffee) to the complex (everything will blow up, make sure you don’t blow up with it).

Not only does this team philosophy need to be time tested, but it can’t be in a state of constant change. Lombardi’s implied message is this; study history to find something that consistently works and do that thing with only minor adaptations.

Another part of a successful philosophy in the NFL is to draft the right players. “Scouting’s not about finding players,” Lombardi says, “Scouting’s about eliminating players.”

In a world of constant lifehacks, pro-tips, and new blog posts – sometimes all we need to do is not do something. If you avoid the bad eggs (in life and football) you’ll often be just fine. Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) proved it was true for marketing, Astro and Danielle Teller (episode #81) found it was true for parenting.

When you get the right players (or avoid the wrong ones) you still aren’t quite there Lombardi says. “You have to have a team that can play right or left-handed,” and if you can’t do this you have to hope to get very lucky. In a sense, that’s what happened to Scott Adams (episode #112). Adams would have had to get lucky if he were just a cartoonist, businessman, or MBA graduate. Instead, Adams is all of these things and so he can play right or left-handed. Adams rephrases Lombardi when he writes, “every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.”

The end of the interview focuses mostly on the last part of leadership, management of self. “Control what you can control,” Lombardi says, and be able to ask yourself what went wrong. He stresses to Parrish that it’s important to separate the process from the product.

It comes down to figuring out:

  • Did I have the right plan but bad luck?
  • Did I have the wrong plan and good luck?

This distinction is important. If luck is a component of an outcome, we should figure out how much luck there was to see how much of an effect it had. If it was bad luck, we need to get over it. Adam Carolla (episode #25) likened it to getting a traffic ticket. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad driver, just an unlucky one.

Part of the analysis between process and product is finding the urgent and important data points. One example Lombardi mentions is scouting. Twenty years ago a scout might go to a school to watch film, talk with coaches, and meet the players. Lombardi says that while this took a lot of time and there wasn’t much film, you at least got to glean a few nuggets about the player. Maybe how he stood, shook your hand, or acted on campus. That was all data.

Now, the data is every snap a players plays (all available as on demand video) but less time on campus meeting people. This is a change in the data. The successful coaches need to adapt how they evaluate players Lombardi says.

Coaches aren’t the only ones who need to adapt, Lombardi says, players do too. There’s a lot less structure in the NFL than there is in college, Lombardi points out, and some players have a hard time adjusting. New conditions are a great time to begin new habits, writes Gretchen Rubin (episode #97). When Rubin got her job as a Supreme Court Clerk, she wanted to make sure she exercised. Rather than wait until she got a feel for the job, she started working out the first day. “Start like you want to continue” she writes in her book, Better Than Before.

Shane ends the interview by asking Lombardi for some reading recommendations. Lombardi says that “anything you can get your hands on” will help. Some specifics he suggests are; The Life and Times of RFK, When Pride Still Mattered, The Rabbit Hunter, Win Forever and The Wright Brothers.

-Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano.

  • One interesting little nugget from this interview was how much history of football Lombardi knew. Bill Belichick was featured in an interview and showed how much he knew as well. Even the term “west coast offense” has a rich history that explains the origin that you would have to know.
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