Mike Lombardi

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

We’ve written about Mike Lombardi three times. First in 2015, about his podcast with Shane Parrish. Again in 2017, summarizing some ideas from the GM Street podcast. Lastly, when he sat on an MIT Sloan Panel that implored NFL coaches to PLEASE STOP PUNTING. Today we’ll highlight his book, Gridiron Genius.

This book inundates the individual reader with immediately implementable ideas. It will mostly interest sports fans, but anyone who reads it can get one good idea that makes the time and financial investment worth it.  My big takeaway was this, good leaders create lush cultures that encourage hard work, debate, and active curiosity.

If you don’t want to read the book, listen to Lombardi’s podcast. He’s good on the mic and the slow drip of lessons through an NFL season is like a semester at school.

Lombardi’s had the good fortune to work with three NFL legends; Al Davis, Bill Belichick, and Bill Walsh. These three men “contributed to my Ph.D. in advanced football. It’s a degree that was 35 years in the making”.

Belichick is the most successful coach Lombardi worked with and there are many stories about how he leads by example. Belichick is not only the last to leave, sometimes he doesn’t, spending the night in his office. Belichick is driven by a lust to look good.

Belichick talks strategy at media day

Ha! He doesn’t care about looking good, he cares about winning. Lombardi wrote, “He (Belichick) is not worried about where an idea comes from; he cares only about whether it makes the team better.”

When Marc Andreessen was asked about arguing with Ben Horowitz, he said much the same thing. Andreessen wants to be right at the group, not the individual level.

For both the Patriots and a16z, this culture starts at the top. “In New England, Robert Kraft approved of, even demanded, a culture change and gave Belichick nearly total control of football operations to achieve it. In Cleveland, Modell was both a meddler and a steadfast proponent of the status quo.”

Lombardi and Belichick’s former colleague, Nick Saban, had the Cleveland, not New England NFL experience. “Saban knew the potential of the former Charger (Drew Brees), but he was not allowed to sign Brees and his surgically reconstructed throwing shoulder…Saban met with internal resistance as he tried to embed his own culture. There was zero buy-in to the new system, with players and executives alike balking at what they perceived to be a radical transformation.”

Culture is a multiplication coeffecient. Good cultures are greater than one, bad cultures are less. Bill Simmons said this about the NBA:

Mike adds that “I never had to hold back,” when he debated Belichick. This is the culture Ben Sasse tries to create. A debate then unity. Independence then unification.

But healthy yet helpful debate it isn’t easy to habituate. Dan Egan pointed out that good arguments are hard. Charlan Nemeth said that the devil’s advocate is empty calories.

Maybe good arguments come from places where leaders promote growth? Lombardi wrote about Bill Walsh, “He was naturally curious, always searching for ways to fix his team or just better accomplish the simplest tasks, and he demanded the same thing of his staff.” Maybe good debates grow in the right conditions. Just like players.

“I couldn’t help but wonder (in 2002 when Rich Gannon, after a decade of mediocrity was the MVP) just how many potentially great quarterbacks have wasted away in the wrong system.”

“What Walsh knew better than anyone in the game was that the key to success in the passing era of the NFL was to marry the right quarterback to the right scheme.”

In his book about the Patriots, Michael Holley quoted a scout who said that the coaches weren’t admonished if a highly graded player didn’t pan out on another team. The thought was, with the Patriots that player may have made it.

Coca-Cola is the story of the right company, at the right time, in the right place. The right (left?) situation is also the story of  Alice Waters, who went from slacker to protester when she transferred from UC Santa Barbara to UC Berkeley. Ben Horowitz knows conditions matter and suggests how to talk to a prophet of rage.

These discussions about conditions and culture aim to avoid what Annie Duke coined ‘resulting’. Duke wrote, “Learning from your outcomes is a really poor strategy. It’s great if you’re playing chess; but it’s terrible if you’re playing poker, it’s terrible if you’re investing, it’s terrible if you’re driving.”

Lombardi wrote, “Their moods (Belichick and Saban) are never a reflection of the score – it’s about the execution.” Michael Mauboussin told Ten Seides, good decisions “boil down to probabilities and outcomes and trying to be on the right side of expected values.” It’s, as Phillip Tetlock suggested, being okay with the wrong side of maybe.

Belichick sounds like a great boss, “You will constantly hear Belichick proclaim to his staff and players, ‘I screwed that up,’ or ‘That’s on me.’” — for a certain type of person. Reflecting on their time in the 1990’s, in Cleveland, Lombardi wrote about working for Belichick, “It was just another reminder of what a professional, well-run workplace Belichick had created in Cleveland and just how rare that kind of an atmosphere is in the NFL.”

Later in the book, he writes about Tom Brady, “It’s no exaggeration to say that Brady’s body truly is his temple. In the old days, players treated their bodies more like carnival tents.”

What we see in the 288 pages that cover Lombardi’s 35-year Ph.D. program is the professionalization of football. Players can only get so big or so fast. Coaches can only stay so late. But culture, a good culture is limitless.


Thanks for reading.

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