Why Culture is Everything: An Interview with 3-Time Super Bowl Champion and Author Michael Lombardi

The National Football League, like all professional sports, is all about the quantifiable, right? Winning trumps everything, so franchises fill rosters with players whose stats jump off the page. They draft the college quarterback who threw the most touchdowns, the running back who won the Heisman Trophy, the wide receiver who runs the fastest 40-yard dash. They might trade a bundle of underrated role players for that superstar. Or at least they used to until Michael Lombardi disrupted the way NFL executives prioritize structuring a winning franchise. A Stoic with three decades experience in the NFL, Lombardi’s resume includes winning three Super Bowls with some of the greatest minds in coaching–Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. Lombardi’s philosophies on how to build championship teams, previously overlooked or undervalued, became foundational for the dynasties built by both Walsh and Belichick.

Talent and stats matter, sure, but more important, as Lombardi pioneered: character. Heisman trophy winners and superstars might turn around a team for a season, maybe two, but Lombardi was more interested in staying power, building franchises that won championships, not a team that won a championship. He has earned prominence as a thought leader in the world of sports and his philosophy developed as an NFL executive was influenced strongly by the years reading and consuming the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Mike’s new book, Gridiron Genius–which hits bookstores everywhere today–reveals what he’s learned in the three decades under football greats like Bill Walsh, Bill Belichick, and Al Davis.

Mike is a former General Manager of the Cleveland Browns and has also held executive roles for the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles. He was an analyst and commentator for the NFL Network and FOX Sports. Mike writes for The Ringer and is a host on the podcast, NFL Show – suffice to say there’s no shortage of platforms to hear and read his opinions on sports. So we took the opportunity to interview Mike about his longtime relationship with ancient philosophy.

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You were largely responsible for the spread of Stoicism across the NFL. What was it in the Stoics originally that you believed applicable to professional football franchises?

The being in the moment belief resonated with me.  Not allowing outside forces, which there are many in sports, to clutter your mind and affect your concentration.  To be the best, you must block out the highs and the lows, and Stoicism preaches this daily.

Your new book, Gridiron Genius, details what you learned working with several coaching legends during three decades in the NFL. Which of those coaches most represented the teachings of Stoicism? Which didn’t?

When I read Obstacle, my first thought was that Belichick was Marcus Aurelius.  Both have the same demeanor, the same focus, and concentration. When Belichick said he was “on to Cincinnati,” few believed him, but I knew it was true.  Bill’s main job is to install, drive and maintain the culture of the Patriots, and he never allows anything to get in his way. Walsh in his way and beliefs were able to do the same, he just had more openness and transparency.

The first chapter of the book is about how culture trumps strategy. How does a leader create a culture and what kind of culture is most important for an organization to have?

Culture is everything. When I first started in the NFL, Bill Walsh told me there were just eight teams competing for the title.  I first thought he meant regarding talent and coaching. What has taken me more than a lifetime to learn was he was talking about the culture in each of those buildings.  Walsh is credited with the West Coast offense, but he loved his Standard of Excellence principles. 17 beliefs that he preached every single day. He, like Belichick, is all about culture.  The Patriot way is culture—a team wins, a team loses. The power of the group trumps the individual.

You started your career at UNLV as a Recruiting Coordinator – another position responsible for finding and bringing in good people. What are signs you look for in a player or coaches–aside from skill on the field–that you think gives you an insight into how they would hold up well under pressure or thrive in a competitive environment?

Past performance predicts future achievement. Be careful of the one year wonder.  Also, understand what qualities that fit the specific systems your team operates and find those. The FBI does not look for a serial killer in the phone book.  They have certain particular traits and characteristics that allow them to identify their suspects. Scouting is about elimination more than finding.

One of the inevitable parts of sports is losing–good teams still lose games. What do great coaches know about losing that lesser coaches don’t? How do they talk to their players about setbacks?

In the NFL most teams exaggerate the wins and forget about the losses. Belichick is the same with both.  He does an autopsy after each game and understands there is a fine line between winning and losing. The outcome is significant, but the process has to be the same after each game. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. Chess champions keep their emotions in check because they are in deep thought. The same deep thinking should happen after a win or loss.

You’ve been a part of organizations that won a lot too. How do you suggest coaches square their relentless drive to win with what the Stoics speak about, that we should be partly indifferent to external results or income (and that praise and fame are not the highest goods to strive for)? Or is there something inherently unphilosophical required to succeed in the NFL?

The best way to win is first not to lose.  How to avoid losing, is the first step to having any success. Great coaches must have a system of checks and balances to assist them in assessing their team.  Working in football is much like being in the veterinarian business. The patient cannot speak. Therefore a coach must establish a set of checks and maintain discipline after the good and the bad.

We asked you last time about your daily rituals and routines. Now that you’ve left football and just wrote your first book, how has your routine changed? How have you transitioned into this new profession?

Yes, I still spend time working on football, but my mornings are more about writing and being an author.  I still wake up early, but instead of diving into football, I remind myself I am a writer. And as you know, writers write.  Football is still in my blood, but I know reading and writing is as essential.  Before I read for enjoyment on long road trips.  Now I read every morning and night to learn more, improve my writing and create more thoughts.

Are there any Stoic exercises you practice daily?

Journaling in the morning, preparing my day. Focus on four things each day.  Review the day, go for a walk, exercise the mind and body and say thank you often.

Can you share another favorite Stoic quote you like to think about and why it’s important to you?

The secret to all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious. It explains the NFL and how to navigate through life perfectly. It applies in every part of my life.