12 February 2023 |

Vince Lombardi’s formula for success


Vince Lombardi is one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. However, when he was hired as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1959, the team was struggling.

  • They didn’t mind losing
  • Never worked hard in practice
  • No winning seasons in 11 years

They were pretty much a new coach’s nightmare.

But he was able to turn these around quickly.

In 1959, Vince Lombardi was appointed head coach of the Green Bay Packers, who had just experienced their worst season ever with a 1-10-1 record. In his first year in charge, the Packers finished 7-5, and Lombardi was awarded the NFL Coach of the Year award.

No coach in National Football League history achieved more success in less time than Lombardi did during his nine seasons with Green Bay—5 NFL Championships, which included Super Bowls I and II.

So how did he do it?

There are three ingredients needed to turn around a low-performing team:

  1. Focus on Strengths
  2. Define Priorities and Keep it Simple
  3. Maintain a High Standard

1) Focus on Strengths

As Lombardi started obsessing over game film, he experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. After witnessing the losing performances of the players he had chosen, he was left questioning his decision. He asked Ruth McCloskey to pray for him after a particularly difficult day.

Despite the disappointment, Lombardi saw potential in the team. During one game, he noticed Paul Hornung running an end sweep, making a sharp cut behind a blocker, and darting through the line for an eight-yard gain. Lombardi was impressed and wondered if Hornung could do better as a halfback. He paid close attention to the rest of the season and noticed Hornung’s soft hands, lower-body strength, and ability to cut. Lombardi was reminded of Frank Gifford, whom he had turned into a star, and saw the potential for Hornung to do the same.

Although Hornung struggled as a quarterback, Lombardi was confident he found a position that would allow him to play to his strengths.

Vince Lombardi contacted Hornung, who was questioning if he would have a future in the NFL.

“I have been analyzing the films. You won’t be a quarterback anymore. You will be my left halfback. You will either play left halfback or you won’t play at all.”

Hornung happily accepted, replying, “I’m exhausted of being shifted around and of sitting on the sidelines. Put me on the field and give me a role, and I will play excellent football for you, Coach.”

What does this mean for you?

Your team will perform better when they are given an opportunity to use their strengths. 

Reflect on the strengths of each individual on your team and the needs of your business.

Who are the people on your team who may be struggling right now but would shine if given the right opportunity?

2) Define Priorities and Keep it Simple

His players viewed Lombardi as a football genius as he helped them prepare for games and make adjustments at halftime. He had an uncanny ability to predict the other team’s moves. His game plans appeared to be straightforward, but that was because he had eliminated numerous plays to get to the fifteen or twenty that he was sure would be successful.

“You might reduce Lombardi’s coaching philosophy to a single sentence: In any game, you do the things you do best, and you do them over and over and over,” said George Halas, legendary coach of the Chicago Bears.

Lombardi knew his teams would win if they could deeply understand and execute the fundamentals.

What does this mean for you?

As a leader in your organization, this requires an intense focus on understanding what works in your industry. 

Study the masters. 

  • What do they do differently that allows them to stand out? 
  • For your team, what are the most essential components of being great?

Help your team understand what these fundamentals are, help them understand how to do them great, and be there to provide feedback and recognition consistently. 

3) Maintain a High Standard

Before his first season with the packers, Lombardi let it be known, “We are going to do things right until everyone is doing them right. We are going to run plays over and over and over until everyone is running them right. I mean everyone!”

While coaching at West Point Military Academy, Lombardi observed head coach Earl Blaik demand perfection from his athlete-soldiers at Army. This group of soldiers had the discipline to meet his expectations. Even though the Packers had been awful the previous 11 years, he didn’t let them off the hook. As professional athletes, he expected the same level of execution from each of them.

He believed it was all in their minds and refused to accept anything less than perfection.

What does this mean for you?

Perfection is a tricky word. A better way to read this is that Lombardi was committed to constantly growing and approaching perfection. 

As a leader, there are three key steps you need to be taking to create a culture of high standards:

1. Define what excellence looks like

2. Set clear expectations and goals for the team and hold them accountable for meeting them.

3. Provide regular feedback and recognition to team members for their efforts.