Moments Of A Mentor Leader
by Tony Dungy, with Nathan Whitaker
Regardless of our situations in life, we are always role models for someone—always—and probably in ways we wouldn’t expect.
My son Eric has long looked up to Larry Fitzgerald, the wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals. That’s not surprising because Larry is one of the most gifted players in the league. But the real reason Eric watched Larry’s every move in the NFL was because of where Larry started—as a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings. You see, Eric also started out as a ball boy for my teams, and he hopes to follow in Larry Fitzgerald’s footsteps—from ball boy to NFL star. I had a chance to mention Eric’s goal to Larry a few seasons ago when the Colts were playing the Cardinals. He asked for my address and wrote a letter to Eric, which was still up on Eric’s wall years later.
The content of the letter? Some thoughts about hard work, and a lot about the importance of getting an education. Larry exhorted Eric to focus on his studies, to recognize that football’s place in his life was temporary but that his education would stay with him forever. I really appreciate that Larry recognized that he was a role model for my son—and for stretching Eric in some very important directions by using that influence in a way that Eric wouldn’t have anticipated. I don’t know how much time it took out of Larry’s day to write that letter, but I do know the impact it had, and continues to have, on my son.
Eric’s dream is to play in the NFL someday, perhaps even on Larry Fitzgerald’s team so he could be mentored by a great receiver. Maybe it will happen. In the meantime, I’m thrilled that Larry is using his platform as a role model for good. And I’m doubly blessed that he’s using it for my son.
Part of the beauty of role models is that we can find them in unexpected places, at unexpected times. We also need to realize that we ourselves may be unexpected role models for others. In every interaction we have, someone is always watching us, and what we say and do forms a design for others to follow. As with Larry Fitzgerald, we need to be aware that the impact we have on others might be for something totally different from what we anticipated.
How’s that for pressure?
Speaking of pressure, I hear from time to time that I’m a role model for a number of young coaches. Sometimes my assistants would tell me that their friends in the league asked whether they really worked as few hours as rumored or if that was just another urban legend. It’s not that we didn’t work plenty of hours, they were able to assure their friends; we just tried to be smart about it and not spend time at the office just for the sake of spending time at the office so that someone would think we were doing a good job. We all know the amount of time spent is not necessarily an indicator of success. Now that I’ve retired from coaching, I can only hope that my former colleagues will carry on what they saw me model—working hard, but living a life in balance.
In my role as head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, I knew—whether I liked it or not—that the television cameras were often focused on me on the sidelines, especially during moments of high drama or at critical junctures in the game. I was always very sensitive to the example I set for others—other coaches, fans, parents, and children—in those situations. In my new role as a football analyst for NBC, I know that people are watching my mannerisms and body language and are listening not only to what I say but to how I say it. I hope I have always been a good role model for those who watch football; I can honestly say that I’ve tried to be.
As a mentor leader, you must be aware that you are also a role model. So live intentionally and remember that whatever settings you find yourself in, a lot of eyes will be on you, seeing things you don’t even realize you’re modeling.
Adapted from The Mentor Leader by Tony Dungy and Nathan Whitaker (Tyndale, 2010).