Lessons From a Football Legend: Mike Ditka Talks Leadership

At the Becker's Hospital Review Annual Meeting on May 17, Mike Ditka, former NFL player and coach, spoke about the lessons football taught him about leadership, greatness and perseverance.

To conclude a day of business discussions, Mr. Ditka arrived to regale the audience with lively tales of his own contracts. He joined the National Football League in 1961. As the first player picked in the first round, he was able to negotiate his own contract for $18,000.

"I had a great year. There was no multi-year contract, so I go in and talk to Mr. [George] Halas again. He said, 'I'll give you a raise, I'll pay you $14,000 this year.' I said, 'Mr. Halas, I made $18,000 last year,' and he goes, 'No, no you made $12,000.' So I told him, 'I'll be a fool if I take a penny less than 18.' And as soon as I said that, he opened the drawer and pulled out a contract for $18,000."

One of the greatest teams Mr. Ditka said he ever played was the Green Bay Packers under the coaching of Vince Lombardi. "Lombardi was a leader because he understood what he wanted. That team did things the Lombardi way. The saying 'practice makes perfect' isn't true. Perfect practice makes perfect. He had a saying that the quality of any person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence. If you want to be mediocre, then be mediocre. Nobody is stopping you. But if you want to get to the top, you're going to have to work and it won't be easy."

In 1972, Mr. Ditka received a phone call from Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys, who offered him a position as assistant coach. He accepted and held that position for nine years, despite "never, ever once" thinking about becoming a football coach. "With the Cowboys, I became the best football player I ever was, and I don't care what the records say, because I learned to be a team player," Mr. Ditka said.

In 1982, Mr. Halas asked Mr. Ditka to be head coach of the Chicago Bears. Under this role, Mr. Ditka led the Bears from dismal performance to six NFC Central titles and a 1986 Superbowl win. "The run with the Bears was an interesting one. When I came to the Bears, I looked at what was there and what wasn't there. We had to change things and move things around. We had fun; you might think it was high-tech business but we were having fun. I was telling someone earlier –– we made the Super Bowl Shuffle two days after the Dolphins beat us. Dolphins kick our [butt] and then two days later we're saying we want to go to the Super Bowl," said Mr. Ditka.

Mr. Ditka concluded his speech by emphasizing his perspective that life is not what you want it to be, it's what you make it. "Greatness can be defined in a lot of ways. Somebody said to define a leader, and so I said a leader must see the need, envision a plan, empower the team for action. Leaders are guys who don't tell people how to do things; they show people how to do things," said Mr. Ditka. "Don't be a moaner and a complainer. Don't [complain] about the people you work for or the people you work with. If you don't like it, don't do it."

More Articles on Leadership:

Bob Woodward: Healthcare Leaders Must Define What They Are Doing
Establishing the Right Culture: 4 Healthcare Leaders on What Makes Great Leadership
Healthcare Leaders Discuss Key Concepts to Police, Improve and Measure Quality

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