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Coach Vince Lombardi: Memorable Axioms on Winning and Leadership

Coach Vince Lombardi on Winning

By Al Bruno,
Teacher and Writer

No head coach in NFL history has been quoted more than Vince Lombardi, and with good reason. In the 1960s Lombardi established a philosophy of leadership and winning that serves as a role model for all professions.

Building character was key to Lombardi’s philosophy. “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is,” he said, and he taught his players how to show they wanted to win. When business people speak about the importance of punctuality that’s “Lombardi time,” meaning get there10 minutes earlier than scheduled.

If you’re a business, an army or a rock band, Lombardi had a simple roadmap to follow. “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses or the problems of modern society.” Politicians would gain a great deal if they revisited Lombardi’s philosophy.

Lombardi learned from his parents, from the Jesuits at Fordham, and from great coaches like Fordham’s Jim “Sleepy” Crowley, a disciple of Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne; Earl “Colonel Red” Blaik, and Jim Lee Howell of the New York Giants.

According to Lombardi, hard work and the will to win, a character-in-action, is what makes people and organizations thrive and succeed. “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” And of course there is his often quoted “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

In America, the name, Lombardi is synonymous with winning. That celebrated axiom “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” is probably recalled more often than anything else from Lombardi’s great coaching career. However, UCLA Coach Henry Sanders first uttered it in the 1940s, but it is attributed to Lombardi time and time again. Afterwards, Lombardi regretted saying it. “I wish to hell I’d never said the damned thing. I meant the effort. I meant having a goal…I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

Vince Lombardi, Jr. wrote in his book, What It Takes To Be

“I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who know nothing about my father except that (1) he was a football coach and (2) he uttered (or endorsed

or seemed to have endorsed) that truly memorable sentence. Some people take the saying on face value and agree with it. Other people are a little uncomfortable with the aggressive little statement. A third group of people are deeply offended by it. They take it as the distillation of everything that’s wrong with football, American culture, capitalism, or mankind.”

But Lombardi knew you couldn’t win all the time and he was fine with that as long as you kept trying to win with everything you had. “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

The goal for Team Lombardi was winning. “Being part of a football team is no different than being a part of any other organization – an army, a political party. The objective is to win, to beat the other guy. You think that is hard or cruel – I don’t think it is. I do think it is a reality of life that men are competitive, and the more competitive the business, the more competitive the men. They know the rules, and they know the objective, and they get in the game. And the objective is to win – fairly, squarely, decently, by the rules, but to win.”

Lombardi was criticized for making winning the most important goal in a brutal game. Lombardi’s critics accused him of callousness and insensitivity.

Lombardi fired back, repeatedly saying: “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?

“I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he

holds dear, is the moment when he was worked his heart out in a good cause and

lies exhausted on field of battle – victorious.”

Winning places the victor on the highest rung of success; conversely, according to Lombardi, losing is never laughable, and it is the time when men need to examine themselves, a soul-searching experience if you will, and make that firm resolution to battle back more competitively than before. Players did not want to be around Lombardi after a Green Bay loss, and son, Vince Lombardi, Jr., too, admitted his family did not want to be around him after a losing effort by the Packers, especially if the Packers played poorly. However, Lombardi would also console his players when losing, saying: “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”

What was important to Lombardi was for his players to establish discipline and a winning character as a way of life. “Winning is not a something thing: it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do the right thing once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”

Ultimately, a person’s character is shaped by discipline, and Lombardi constantly reminded his players of that. Lombardi wrote:
“It’s easy to have faith in yourself and have discipline when you’re a winner, when you’re number one. What you got to have is discipline when you’re not a winner.”

With his religious and military-like training, Lombardi understood the importance of discipline and communicated it frequently to his players in building a winning organization; in essence, Lombardi understood that there could be no winning without discipline. Discipline is the key.

Not one in football has been able to duplicate the winning ways of the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. History proves Lombardi right on winning. Winning is Lombardi.

Coach Vince Lombardi on Leadership

Building a winning football team at Green Bay made the charismatic Lombardi a household name in the 1960s and a revered leader. President Richard Nixon had considered asking Lombardi to join him as his vice presidential, running mate in 1968, until he learned that Lombardi was a Kennedy Democrat. Lombardi was approached as a candidate for the U.S. Senate and was talked about for a gubernatorial run in Wisconsin as well, but he declined the political offers. Lombardi’s passion was football, not politics.

It’s small wonder Lombardi didn’t want to be a leader in the often-dirty world of politics.

“Leadership rests not only upon ability, not only upon capacity; having the capacity to lead is not enough. The leader must be willing to use his authority. His leadership is then based on truth and character. There must be truth in the purpose and will power in the character.”

Nevertheless, Lombardi’s winning made the world to take notice of his exceptional leadership, creating a demand for Lombardi leadership techniques in sports programs in schools and colleges. As a result, Lombardi began writing down his thoughts and giving speeches about leadership, creating axioms that would define his leadership style.

Vince Lombardi, Jr. recalls his father’s speeches:

“Like all great speakers, he left his audience asking for more. In fact, many organizations asked him to come back repeatedly. Nobody seemed to mind that

Lombardi gave it to them. Inspiration is essential, like air and food. But I think there is even more to be gotten out of my father’s words and deeds ”

Lombardi believed that “Leadership is based on a spiritual quality; the power to inspire, the power to inspire others to follow.” He very much wanted good leaders to be recognized and rewarded for their achievements. Lombardi wrote:

“Our society, at the present time, seems to have sympathy only for the misfit, the maladjusted, the criminal, the loser. Assist them – absolutely. But I think it is high time that we stand up for the doer, the achiever, the winner, and the leader, the one who sets out to do something and does it…The one who is constantly looking to do. The one who carries the work of the world on his shoulders. We will never create a good society, much less a great one, until individual excellence is respected and encouraged”.

Vince Lombardi, Jr. outlined that the Lombardi leadership model is built on four, major tenets: knowing self, building character, earning competence, and building vision. When Lombardi was asked about what are the qualities or characteristics of great leadership, he responded:

“What is needed, too, is people who will keep their head in an emergency, no matter what the field. Leaders, in other words, who meet intricate problems with wisdom and with courage. Leadership is not just one quality, but rather a blend of many qualities. Contrary to the opinion of many leaders are not born; they are made. And they are made by hard effort, which is the price we pay for success.”

According to Lombardi, self-knowledge is the central to building character: Identifying leader strengths as well as weaknesses is crucial. Lombardi writes: “If I had to do things all over again, I think I would pray for more patience maybe, and more understanding.”

Everything Lombardi professed centered on hard work, discipline, and character. Lombardi writes about mental toughness and a leader’s will:

“Mental toughness is many things. It is humility. It is simplicity. The leader always remembers that simplicity is the sign of true greatness and meekness, the sign of true strength. Mental toughness is Spartanism, with all its qualities of self-denial, sacrifice, dedication, fearlessness, and love. Mental toughness is also the perfectly disciplined will. The strength of your group is in your will – in the will of the leader. The difference between a successful man and others is not in the lack of strength, nor in the lack of knowledge, but rather, in the lack of will.”

Remember that the will is character in motion…Character is more than intellect. Character is the direct result of mental attitude. A man cannot dream himself into character; he must hammer out and forge one for himself.”

The difference between a good coach and an average coach is knowing what you want, and knowing what the end is supposed to look like. If a coach doesn’t know what the end is supposed to look like, he won’t know it when he sees it.”

Building a vision for organizational success is crucial in leadership. A comprehensive, clear vision unifies the whole organization under one robust purpose. Lombardi Jr. writes about the importance of enlisting support for the vision:

“The key to my father’s success was his extraordinary ability to get people to go beyond themselves – to give more to the cause than they ever believed they were capable of giving. He did this through his personal example of enormous energy and unflagging commitment. He did this by embodying the high standards that he wanted to see in others. He did this by bestowing or withholding his approval.”

It was not easy to get Coach Lombardi’s approval and favor: A player had to demonstrate it on the field and in practice through hard work and the display of sacrifice. He was hard to please, but his approval would come for good reasons. Lombardi writes:

“When you got that smile, that pat on the back, that “Attaboy,” made all the sacrifice and the hardship seem worthwhile. And the next day, you’d start all over again, working to win his approval and avoid his disapproval. I know this is what motivated his players, and it’s certainly what motivated me.”

The players, through the character-building program in the Green Bay organization, believed in Lombardi. For modern-day leaders, Lombardi’s tenets of self-knowledge and competence are only accomplished by individual sacrifice and determination. Competence is acquired by hard work, repetitions, and experiences. However, many modern-day leaders fall short at adopting Lombardi’s tenets of character building and vision-building within organizations.

Cooperation and can be nebulous and requires interpersonal skills to successfully build vision in organizations: Cooperation and thinking as a team can be difficult to attain and that is where leadership bogs down. Getting personnel to commit to a vision when building an organization is a frustration shared by many leaders

The beauty of the Lombardi leadership model is that he used all four of his tenets masterfully and gracefully to create the winning the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. Proudly before games in the Green Bay Locker Room, Lombardi reminded his players, saying: “Remember this: You are the Green Bay Packers, and you are the world champions of football. Make me proud.” It must have been a memorable, uplifting experience to be a Green Bay player on game day and be inspired by the Coach of the Century, as voted by ESPN.

Quotes are from and “What it takes to be #1” by Vince Lombardi, Jr.


Lombardi, V. (2001). What It Takes To Be #1. New York:, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Maraniss, D. (1999). When Pride Still Mattered. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Maraniss, D. (1997). When football mattered. Esquire, 128 (2). The Official Website of Vince Lombardi.











































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