In an interview after the Super Bowl, New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin reflected on his team’s remarkable success. Coughlin’s secret for brining out the best in his players was simple: he told them he loved them.
According to the New York Post, Coughlin recalled his speech to his players the night before the game, saying:
“This is a very special team, and it was appropriate at this point in time to let them know how I felt about them…. So they didn’t have any question in their mind that I deeply appreciated what they accomplished, where they’ve come from the fact they’ve done it together, and I wanted them to know it. I wasn’t afraid. I told them, ‘I’m man enough to tell you I love you.’”
Love? That’s not the sort of thing you normally hear from a coach, or many other leaders for that matter. But it shows how harnessing deep emotion can motivate and inspire a team.
That runs counter to the way most people think about leadership. It’s widely believed that leaders must rely on rational arguments to succeed, holding their emotions in check or spooning them out in measured doses. Surface emotions, like humor, are fine to display, but not deep emotions, and certainly not love.
But there was nothing measured about Coughlin’s remarks. He let his emotions loose. That had an impact on his players:
“For coach to come out and show you his emotional side, that gets your attention,” said Giants cornerback Aaron Ross, who was benched for poor play way back in Week 2 against the Rams and ended up having a fine bounce-back season. “He’s always a tough, stern guy, so to see that and hear that, it meant a lot.”
Other coaches have drawn out greatness in their teams in a similar way. Phil Jackson, who has 11 NBA championships as a coach and two more as a player, has said: “Love is the force that ignites the spirit and binds teams together.”
Or course, emotional appeals don’t replace the hard work and preparation a team must do. Coughlin and the Giants did the work – they stayed healthy, kept focused, practiced plays for countless hours, reviewed game-day strategies. All that was the foundation. What inspired the Giants to perform at a higher level was Coughlin’s authentic emotional communication.
Coughlin also showed that great leaders risk change. For most of his coaching career, Tom Coughlin’s style was old-school tough. It brought success, but he was able to reach even greater heights by learning to be less controlling and more willing to let his emotions show. For a guy in his 60s, that kind of change is quite an achievement.
Few leaders have the courage to reveal emotion as Coughlin did. But when they do, people respond to their authenticity and become inspired to achieve something great – whether it’s launching a new product, making a film or winning a championship.