Learning From Leaders: 3 Thoughts From Tom Landry 

I love learning about leaders and leadership. A few years ago I served as an adjunct professor at Jacksonville State University and taught a Football Coaching Principles class. One of the sessions was on the history of defenses. While preparing for that class and studying the 4-3 defense, I learned a lot about Tom Landry.

Tom Landry was a great leader who left a tremendous legacy with the things he did both on and off the field. His innovative 4-3 defensive schemes still influence the game at its highest level and his outstanding leadership skills are useful for leaders in all fields. I found three quotes from Tom Landry that really relate to effective leadership. These three quotes lead me to three leadership ideals:

NOTE: If you are interested in the 4-3 defense and Tom Landry’s role in its history, check out the 3 minute Youtube video that I created at the bottom of this post.


Stick to the Plan

Poise Under Pressure

Fail Forward

Stick to the Plan

  1. Stick to the Plan

We have all been there before. We have come up with a great plan that we are confident will work. We begin working the plan and…. much to our disappointment, nothing happens. We are not seeing the results that we expected.

Goals are important. You do have to know where you are going. However, more importantly, you have to know how you will get there. You have to develop a plan. Then you have to stick to that plan. The sticking to it part is the hardest.

As a coach, I absolutely loved the planning part. In fact, I enjoyed the offseason more than I did the games. That is in part due to the fact that 3 of my 4 stops were at schools that were rarely ever the favorite in any matchup, but that is not the whole story. I loved the offseason because that was the goal setting and plan building stage. It was the start. I love starting. I think most of us do. However, just as you drive for show and putt for dough in golf, you make your money in football and leadership by finishing. To finish, you have to stick to the plan. This is easier said than done. The reasons to bail on a plan are numerous and often enticing. We have all seen the adverse effects of jumping on the newest idea, program, or plan that is sure to succeed, only to drop it like its hot at the first sign of adversity. This is not a new idea. We all know the power of resiliency, and we have all heard that knowing is half the battle, but what about the other half?


What keeps us from sticking to the plan?

  • Politics
  • Poor Performance
  • Patience



Abandoning a plan too early is often politically advantageous. The hire and fire mentality can at times be viewed by an under informed public as action. At least something is being done about it. Right? Hire and develop is the much better way to operate, but it requires a lot of work and support. Politics ain’t got time for that. People demand action. Don’t get me wrong, action is important; but allowing politics to abbreviate legitimate improvement is not the way to succeed long term.

Poor Performance

Abandoning a plan too early can be caused by initial poor performance. I remember Tony Franklin saying that one of Bill Curry’s biggest mistakes at Kentucky was not sticking to an offense. Bill Curry most certainly did not lack experience, but his lack of confidence in what they were doing offensively was obvious. Speaking of Tony Franklin, a slow start to his season as offensive coordinator at Auburn, and off with his head. Last time I checked, Tony has been successful everywhere except that one season at Auburn. A couple seasons later and a second run at a spread offense and the Tigers were sizing for some bling. I don’t mean to oversimplify things, but it does stand to reason that Auburn gave up on the spread a little to early, which was predicated by early poor performance.


Abandoning a plan too early can come from a lack of patience. In our society, we want it all, and we want it now. We have been subject to the must win situation for some time now. This is furthered amplified by the fact that the winning must happen NOW! The impact of this for our sport, especially at the high school level, is scary. Win at all cost is the flavor of the day, but I am afraid the all cost part is coming to roost. Revenge is a meal best served cold, and I believe success is a meal best slow cooked. Have some patience. It is not just the recipe. Timing and patience has something to do with it. Corners are made for turning, not cutting. Take the time to do it the right way. The benefits of that pay dividends for your organization that last much longer than numbers on a board at the end of a competition.


Tom Landry Poise Under Pressure

  1. Poise Under Pressure

 I spent so much time as a coach preparing my players and teams to be able to handle pressure. Coaches know that pressure is coming and that we have to be ready. The same applies for leaders. Our “teams’ have to be ready to handle pressure. We want our people to remain poised no matter what the circumstance. The way we as leaders respond to adversity goes a long way in determining the way our people will respond. We want them to see that we are in control.

What helps us to keep our poise under pressure?

  • Preparation
  • Practice
  • Perseverance


As a leader, we know that tough times are inevitable. We know that adversity is a part of the game. Preparation for those times is critical. In these efforts, we want to be proactive rather than reactive. One of the best things that we did in preparation for a game was our Thursday script. We practiced every imaginable game situation that could possibly happen in a game. Many of these situations would happen only once a season, if at all; but because we had practiced it every single Thursday, we were ready. Leaders must make sure that their organizations are ready. We can’t predict every single event that we will have to handle, but we can make sure that as a team we have the capacity to step up to the challenge.


I am a big believer in T-M-F. Teach-Monitor-Feedback. These are the three things that you will observe at a great practice. Coaches who perform all three of these on the practice field are sure to have a prepared team. Great coaches TEACH their players skills, MONITOR their performance of those skills, and give them FEEDBACK. All three must be done. I would always tell my staff that we need coaches not commentators. Leaders teach their people the procedures that lead to organizational success, monitor their performance, and give them feedback. This requires a tremendous amount of effort. Leave the commentating to Verne and Gary. Leaders must do much more than comment on poor performance. They support and give feedback that shapes continuous improvement. Great leaders help people succeed, and in turn the organization benefits.


How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time

We all love a great comeback. Last second field goals, Hail Mary passes, or last second field goals that turn into a kick 6, or Hail Mary passes that are tipped into touchdowns, ahem… War Eagle. Seriously though, sometimes you win by just not quitting.

As a leader, there are times to sprint and there are times to pace; there is never a time to quit. As a leader, I am a marathoner, metaphorically speaking of course. Being a marathoner helps leaders to keep their poise under pressure. Just keep moving. It may not be at break neck speed, but then again, not breaking your neck is a pretty good idea. Just keep moving. In the spirit of Zig Ziglar, you just have to make it to “one more mailbox.” On your next morning run in your neighborhood, don’t think in terms of how many more miles you have; instead, think of making it to one more mailbox.


Tom Landry Fail Forward

  1. Fail Forward

You win or you learn. There really is no lose. I did not believe this early on in my career as a coach. I was concerned only with winning. When we won, I was on to the next, never really enjoying the victory. When we lost, I would do what can be best described as pouting like a baby. I made everyone around me miserable. I was going to win, and win big. That is all I really cared about. I had won a National Championship as a player (note: scout team, walk-on), and a State Championship as an assistant coach; and I was going to win championships as a head coach. That is just the way it was going to be. Luckily, some adversity, some great spiritual advice, and a steadfast wife changed all that, but that is a story for a different time.

Right now, I want to talk about losing. Losing is going to happen. We have to be prepared for it. Don’t get me wrong; I understand that leaders have to win. If you don’t win your credibility takes a hit and people don’t want to be a part of your “team.” However, this has to be kept in perspective. Winning has to truly be a byproduct of the process, and you have to know how to handle losing. Actually, it is more than knowing how to handle losing. You have to use losing to your advantage. You have to fail forward. Effective leaders find something constructive in defeat.

How do we find something constructive in defeat?

  • Self Analysis
  • Act
  • Let It Go

Self Analysis

Look at yourself first. After a loss, it is easy to point fingers and blame others. DON’T! Find the things that you can control before you blame circumstance. Many times we can find things that we can button up and improve that may get lost in a win. Losses can shine a light on these things. WARNING! Be sure not to over do this; instead use it as a good place to start when things did not turn out quite like you wanted them to.


Do something about it. You do not have time to pout and be miserable. You lost, its over, move on. Be sure that you don’t let a loss this week get you beat the next week. Yeah, they got the best of you this go around, but don’t let any lingering effects cause you to get beat again. Only give them that one. You have got to bounce back. After you have analyzed your organization and found the things that can be tightened up, tighten them up. NOW! Get to work. To me, nothing buries a loss deeper into the rearview mirror than good old-fashioned hard work.

Let It Go

Sometimes you just simply have to let it go. Take a look at yourself and take action. After that you have to move on. Let it go. I will never forget while in one of my times of frustration my wife sent me a video of my niece, Mallory, singing the “Let It Go” song from Frozen with the text, “How can you listen to this and be upset?” That video had a huge impact on me for more than one reason. Yes, the video itself was beyond cute and immediately mood changing, but it also made me think. Sometimes you just have to let it go.


From his innovative 4-3 defensive schemes that still influence the game today, to his incredible leadership skills, Tom Landry represents all that is good about the great game of football. Tom Landry was a great leader both on and off the field. He most certainly left the game better than he found it; and he left us some exceptional advice concerning leadership. As leaders we will be faced with the challenge of maintaining our course of action when the going gets tough. All leaders must negotiate pressure. We will all deal with failure. Sticking to the plan, having poise under pressure, and failing forward are all ideas that can help us be better leaders.

Check out a video that I created on Tom Landry’s impact on the 4-3 Defense