To Win, Learn Who You Are

In February, after the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl, perhaps America’s biggest sports prize, Pete Carroll, the team’s coach, let loose his unrestrained delight. Carroll, known for his boyish enthusiasm on the sidelines, had a reason to be thrilled. His Seahawks, winning that city’s first sports championship in 35 years, had dominated the Denver Broncos 43–8 and made an emphatic statement that his was the best team in the National Football League.

Given that Carroll had been twice let go as an N.F.L. head coach (from the Jets and the Patriots), the rise to champion had redemption written all over it. For Carroll, though, victory was sweet but not unexpected. Not long after he was head coach of the Patriots in 2000, Carroll spent a lot of time reconsidering what it meant to be a coach, how to embrace the quest for success and how to make winning a habit rather than an elusive goal.

Pete Carroll

“This is exactly what we envisioned from Day One,” Carroll told reporters after the Super Bowl victory. “We were going to be right here and win this football game in the fashion we were able to. We deserved it and we earned it, because this is exactly what we’ve been preparing for, and we expected it. That may sound cocky. That may sound arrogant. But it’s a mentality that you can’t get in one week.”

Indeed, it is a mentality that Carroll has built upon for the past 14 years, a philosophy he has gone so far as to name — “Win Forever” — and employ with remarkable success in the college and pro games. A longtime disciple of U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, Carroll marveled at Wooden’s ability to win consistently despite a constant influx of new players and changing competitive landscapes.When he left the Patriots, Carroll was down but undaunted. He decided that his philosophy had to become the solid foundation of any job he took on in the future. In one interview, he recounted a conversation with Wooden.

“I asked Coach Wooden, ‘After all these years, do you change your philosophy year to year?’ ” Carroll recalled. Wooden was shocked.“He said, ‘Coach, you don’t change your philosophy; the players change.’ That’s my feeling now. You either have your philosophy or you don’t. You stay with what you believe in; you bring it to light as creatively as you can.”

In 2001, Carroll landed the head coach job at the University of Southern California and instituted his new philosophy. The thinking wasn’t revolutionary — it was all about selflessness, about making clear that the team came first and the eyes had to be on the prize. If everyone buys in and works relentlessly on and off the field toward that goal, it would be attainable. In nine years at U.S.C., the team went 97–19 under Carroll, won two national championships, turned out 34 All-Americans and sent 60 players on to the N.F.L. The team won seven straight Pac-10 titles, and “Win Forever” no longer seemed fanciful.

When Carroll decided to try his hand at the pros once again, he landed in Seattle in 2010 with a reputation as a coach more suited to the college game. But Carroll had other ideas. He believes that his philosophy could work anywhere — from a gridiron to a boardroom to a battlefield. It’s all about competing to get the most out of every opportunity, whether it’s on the practice field, in the weight room, in team meetings or in the key moments of a tightly contested game. “To accomplish the grand, you have to focus on the small,” Carroll has said.

Given the idiosyncrasies of today’s professional athletes, the quirky personalities, the selfish off-field behavior, the huge amounts of money involved, Carroll’s ability to deliver his philosophy at this level is remarkable. As the new N.F.L. season got under way and Seattle began the difficult task of repeating as Super Bowl champion, Carroll spoke about his quest to keep winning forever to Korn Ferry’s Briefings on Talent & Leadership.

How did your leadership philosophy evolve?

A: I really don’t talk about it in terms of leadership. I’m sure it is leadership in somebody’s perspective, but to me, it’s just football coaching. What happened for me is that, after years of coaching and studying and working at it and competing, I came back to my fascination with Coach Bill Walsh in San Francisco. I lived in the area, and I’d always been an admirer of his. I had worked my way through my career, as an assistant coach, as head coach of the Jets, and I was just trying to grow as a coach as much as I could. I was trying to learn and get as good as I could get.

After I left the Jets, I got a chance to be part of the 49ers program in San Francisco and it struck a nerve with me that there were some really unique aspects to the style, the approach, the mentality and the vision of that program, and things started to come to me. I thought I was really ready and when I got the head coaching job with the New England Patriots; I thought I had it together, that I was as ready as I could ever be. After three years and a 27–21 overall record, New England let me go. I just did not feel good about that whole experience for a number of reasons. And I was sitting home during the year I had off after I was fired, and something just hit me right between the eyes.

Explain that.

A: I was reading John Wooden’s little blue book “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court,” and in there it mentioned that after so many years at U.C.L.A., he finally won his first national championship. Once he won that first national championship, he won 10 of the next 12 and he was unstoppable. He finally retired after that last national championship and quit coaching. What hit me is that he had this way about him that was so unique and unorthodox. But he knew exactly what it took for him to best express himself as the leader of that program, and once he got to that point, nobody could touch him. And it hit me that I had been spending all these years coaching and I still wasn’t sure yet what was really at the fundamental core and essence of who I was. I needed to figure that out if I was ever going to have a chance.

What did you do?

A: I picked up a notebook, and from that point forward I started writing down my thoughts about what was important to me in coaching. I was trying to get at the essence of what I was all about and what was meaningful to me. And out of that came a clear realization that I’m a competitor and that’s the way I had spent my whole life. Wherever I was, I was always competing at everything. Playing sports with my brother as a little kid, everything I ever did, that was the way I looked at things. I knew that if I was ever going to get into a leadership position again, I needed to make that come to life in my program. So competition became the central theme of our program, and I realized that everything I was doing, that I would undertake, would be with a competitor’s mindset. And we as a team would either be competing or we wouldn’t.

So you got hired by U.S.C. and brought that concept to a once-proud program that had fallen on some hard times. What happened with that?

A: To do it right, I knew we had to be in relentless pursuit of a competitive edge in everything that we did. That’s what we would be thinking when we’d wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. We would work in every way, in every aspect of the job, to approach it with that thought. That mentality became a language, a terminology, a concept and approach that allowed me to really have a theme in what we were doing. It applied to the way we worked, the way we taught, the way we learned and the way we handled our players. It applied to the way we traveled, the way we ate and everything, that we would be working to do it the best way we could possibly think of.

How did that translate to the players?

A: I realized that the best way to bring that out in our program was to look at our players and help them be the best they could possibly be. I had to figure out how to make that happen. And through that came our relationship-based approach to coaching. We needed to figure out who the guys were that we were working with. We needed to understand them as well as we possibly could. We needed to uncover their unique, special qualities that made them them, and bring those to light in the way we taught them and asked them to perform. We treated our guys in a manner that we thought would help them find themselves, find their highest qualities and find their highest ability to perform. And then we had to blend that into our play so that guys could be doing the things they were really good at instead of asking them to fit a square peg into a round hole. We needed to be smart enough as coaches to adapt our process and our system so that we could bring out the qualities that were so special.

It seems both logical and very ambitious.

A: Well, we found that ... once we looked at it that way, we could get young players to perform when they first got there and develop a mentality and competitiveness on our roster. And each year, as new players came in, we continued to live to that standard. Everybody had a chance to compete right from the beginning, and it developed the mentality I have lived with ever since. At U.S.C., it felt like I had come to understand it really clearly.

How did that work with the Seahawks?

A: When the chance came to come back to the N.F.L., with the freedom and support of the ownership to run the program exactly the way I wanted it to be run, I just carried over the exact same thinking here. That’s what we’ve done, and we’re at the precipice of finding out how that’s going to go over a long period of time. We know how it went at U.S.C., and we’re going to find out in the next two, three or four years here if we were able to find something that allows players to perform at a really high level more consistently than other people. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Our theme is selflessness and sacrifice for the sake of a team. How do you instill that when you have so many different individuals, personalities, idiosyncrasies; for example, a Russell Wilson and a Richard Sherman who are very different kinds of people?

A: Part of it is dealt with when everybody decides to join in on the common mission. Guys decide to be part of something that is bigger than themselves and that they’re willing to give of themselves. The one thing that may be different here than in other programs is that we celebrate the uniqueness of our players and their ability to perform, but also who they are. We’ve worked to make space for those guys to be the individuals they are as they go along with the common mission that we’re all on, which is to be the best we can possibly be.

One would think that is a difficult thing to achieve.

A: The standard of what the team is all about is greater than what the individual is all about. Yet they still can find their freedom in that, to a certain extent, to be themselves. If you hear our guys comment, you’ll hear them say things like that. And I’m not preaching that. It is just what happens. But that’s all part of the mentality, that we’re trying to draw from these guys the best that maybe they don’t even know they have. And they have to give themselves to us. If it’s all about them, then they won’t fit, and they won’t be able to stay here.

You have a quarterback in Russell Wilson who is undersized but has become a superstar. What was your conversation with him to get him to where he is?

A: Russell is an extraordinary individual, and he resonates with ev-erything we’re talking about. It makes sense to him because he is driven in a similar fashion. There’s nothing he won’t do to get himself prepared to be at his best. So our language is just music to his ears.

How does all this translate into the business world?

A: To me, what we’re talking about is working to be your best. And it doesn’t matter whether you are a football player, a business person, a dad or a mom or somebody’s big brother. You can be great at doing that if you work at it and if you apply yourself and compete to be that. I’ve found that the mentality translates anywhere I go and to whomever I’m talking to. I’ve visited with military officers, Special Forces groups, and it makes sense to them too, because we’re all working to find our very best.

This seems like it ought to be obvious but so often is not.

A: If you talk to a group of people who are in leadership positions, leading corporations or government agencies or teams, and you ask them “Do you have a philosophy?” … about a quarter of them will raise their hand and say, “Yeah, I’ve got a philosophy.” And I will ask, “O.K., how many of you with your hands raised can tell me in 25 words or less what that philosophy is?” And invariably, only one or two percent of the people will still have their hand up. So the core of what we do is try to help people find their beliefs, find out who they are and what they’re all about. We try to help organizations find their philosophy. They might be operating all along and have a philosophy and not even know what it is.

What is the response to your approach?

A: Once a person figures out what their mainline philosophy really is, what distinguishes their uniqueness, they will see things completely differently. You end up seeing things in a way that will empower you to be much more consistently the best you can be, and it may bring out parts of you that you didn’t even realize were there working for you. It’s exactly what happened to me when I went back to Coach Wooden’s influence. When I started writing down what I believed in, what was important to me, out of that came some central themes that I didn’t even know existed. From that came an understanding and an opportunity to be more connected to my authentic self.

For leaders, that could be pretty amazing.

A: If you are a leader or you are in charge of people, it’s way more powerful when you know what is important to you and you can help them understand that. Once they get the message down, it’s not just a mission statement. It’s deeper than that, and when you get it, you can share what is really the essence of what you are … with the people around you. And they can act more in accordance with you. In so doing, you can elevate the value and the effectiveness and the performance of the people around you, which is really at the heart of what we’re talking about.

When you went from college to the pros, did you encounter differences that you had to address in terms of working with multimillionaires instead of college kids?

A: I get that question a lot and the answer is no, there was no difference. If I am talking to Microsoft or Boeing or leaders in the military, it’s the same language and the same approach. Because I am just trying to help people be the best they can be and to perform at their highest levels. And when people you work with realize that is truly what you are after and you really mean it and you demonstrate that by your consistency, they will turn and give you everything they’ve got. So there is no age factor or money factor here. If people don’t want to listen, they won’t listen. But if they are open to improving and trying to reach their highest heights, the messaging is the same. I’m trying to help them create a vision for what the team could be and make that vision as precise and clear as it can be. So once a vision for, say, a Russell Wilson is designed and he agrees to it, it’s our job as coaches to keep him consistently in connection with that vision until it comes to life.

How long did it take for that philosophy to get buy-in?

A: It takes a little bit of time. Transitions always take some time because of a lack of willingness to leave the old and what was comfortable for them. It’s a process, and there’s resistance because they are unsure of what you are all about and what you mean. Some will resist more than others, and you just need to identify those people and learn the learners. Learning the learners is listening, observing, watching and doing an impeccable job of analyzing who you’re dealing with so that you can deal with them effectively. It worked much quicker here in Seattle than at U.S.C. because I’ve gotten better at the language and more consistent in how I frame everything. You just have to demonstrate uncommon consistency to the message. You can talk about commitment all you want, but it doesn’t mean anything until you prove it, until you live it.

Unlike some coaches, you have so much enthusiasm and fun on the field. Is that a byproduct of your philosophy?

A: That’s part of the style. I love setting standards as high as we can set them for our performances. Every single day is a performance day for us. That’s one of the pillars we believe in. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. The harder we work, the more fun it is. The better we perform, the more joy that comes out of it, if we do it right.

At the end of the day, it’s about the competition.

A: People everywhere, including our guys, love to compete. They love to have fun doing it. But people generally define competing as working against something. I use an older definition of the word, which is to strive for something you want, like excellence and to be your best. We’re competing to be the best we can be. When Max Unger, our center, practices against Brandon Mebane, our nose tackle, a guy he’s been practicing against for five years, they have come to understand that it’s Max who makes Brandon perform at his highest levels. And in that, there’s a tremendous bonding, where they say, “I owe it to him to give him my best, to make him the best he can be.” It might sound idyllic, but it’s the truth.

Does all this add up to “Win Forever”?

A: Well, it’s been really hard for teams to come back after a championship and play at that level again. I don’t use the phrase ‘Win Forever’ around here very much; it’s just in the back of my mind and drives me. Winning forever is striving to be your best. You can’t do any better than that. That’s what winning is all about. We’ll look back in 10 years and see how it worked out here. 

Authors

  • Joel Kurtzman

    Former Editor-in-Chief, Korn Ferry Institute

  • Jed Hughes

    Vice Chairman, Global Sector Leader, Sports

    Bio >
  • Michael Distefano

    President, Asia Pacific

    Bio >