Lessons in Values Driven Leadership with Jim Rooney

Earlier this week, my graduate course in sport ethics enjoyed a virtual guest lecture and Q&A with Jim Rooney. Rooney’s family business is, of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the legendary NFL franchise founded by his grandfather Art in 1933. Jim’s father, the late Dan Rooney, deserves much of the credit for the team’s prestige and reputation; it was under Dan’s visionary leadership that the franchise transformed from the laughing stock of the league to one of the most consistently competitive and commercially successful outfits in big time sports.

Last year, Jim wrote a biography of his father, A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule. It’s an insightful and enlightening book, connecting lessons from Dan’s days running the football team to his time as US Ambassador to Ireland during the Obama administration, and definitely a good addition to any sports leadership library. Those familiar with the NFL likely know Dan Rooney not just as the leader of the Steelers, but as one of a small cadre of owners who really shepherded the league through its growing pains into the juggernaut it is today.

The book serves as a reminder that success in business (or sport business) is “simple, not easy.” The Rooneys would likely be the first to admit that there are no real secrets and Dan’s lessons are time-honored and tested. Value long term initiatives and planning over short term results. Negotiate for win-win situations and do so with dignity. Know the ins and outs of your organization, but don’t micromanage; empower people to succeed. Focus on building quality, long lasting relationships. But as I said: simple, not easy. The book details Dan Rooney’s steadfast commitment to these principles and how they generated consistent, long-term success. And there’s no BS here, it’s as fair as a treatment as any son could write of a father. Plus, it’s not like Jim has any room to re-write history: almost all of his father’s successes were closely observed by the media and the public, the track record is there for all to confirm. Those Super Bowls didn’t win themselves, nor did the three (!!!) head coaches that the team has employed since 1969 (!!!) hire themselves.

The book served as the basis of a wide ranging conversation with our class and I am indebted to Jim for his generosity with his time, his sage advice to my students, and his honesty and candor in his responses to our questions. Given the time we’re living in, I particularly appreciated a couple of his future oriented responses. When asked what organizations can do to prepare for a crisis, he didn’t stray from the key principles: no one can predict the future and organizations will inevitably suffer, but those who will survive (and even thrive) are those who have already built a foundation and vision for the long term. On the subject on challenges to the NFL going forward, he had a killer line, “I’m not worried about the basketball net, I’m worried about Netflix.” While some folks suggest that the NBA is nudging the NFL for dominance, he’s right to focus on non-sports competition and the ongoing struggle for consumers’ shortening attention spans.

Here are a couple clips from the class session, featuring some of my favorite takeaways. First, is a discussion of focusing on yourself to become a master of dealing with others. Authenticity, accountability, and self-awareness are critical.

And here’s his advice to students entering the sports industry. Mind your social media, know the industry broadly, but make sure to develop a specific skillset!

Many thanks again to Jim for sharing his wisdom. You can find out more about his work at his website.

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