“The standard is the standard.” –Mike Tomlin

In this chapter, you as a leader will learn how to earn the trust of those you lead by articulating and living consistent standards of competency and character – being clear about your mission and consistently living your values.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is only one way to measure success: “The standard is the standard.” And for the Steelers, the standard is very simple: to compete for the championship of the National Football League every single year.

This value starts from the very top of the organization and is infused into every aspect of the team’s work ethic, from the ownership and front office to coaches, players and the grounds crew. Hall of Fame team owner and former United States Ambassador to Ireland Daniel M. Rooney (referred to throughout this book as “Mr. Rooney”), likes to say that “The foundation of effective leadership is setting and maintaining the standards.”

For the Rooneys, their top priority is the players, who are the product on the field. They deliberately select the right players and take care of them. They are clear about their main thing and never are confused about their mission. The Rooneys do not allow activity that distracts from the standard.

Contrast that approach with how some high profile teams operate their business. There is a circus at every break on the field and marketing flashes at every opportunity. Their core business is entertaining fans, selling merchandise and making money, with winning championships second.

The Steelers have excelled at simplifying their mission so that everyone in the organization can understand it, own it, contribute to it and pass it on. The question for you is whether everyone you lead understands the mission as clearly as you do. Do you state the mission repeatedly, so it is engrained in everyone’s minds? Do you live it, so everyone learns from your example?

This concept is not new. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America’s most popular writers of the nineteenth century, said that “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” whose character determines the direction of the organization.

For the Steelers, that lengthened shadow is the inspiring standard set by the team’s legendary founder, Arthur J. Rooney Sr. (referred to throughout this book as “The Chief”), and his son Daniel (“Mr. Rooney”) and grandson Arthur J. Rooney II (Art II). It is all about winning Super Bowls.

The Chief downplayed this influence but motivated many people with a clear set of governing standards: “Do what’s right,” he would say. “Love God, and love your family.”

Note that this principle is not about “dynamic leadership” because, frankly, the Rooneys do not demonstrate dynamic personalities. Mr. Rooney and Art II are quiet, introspective and avoid the limelight. Yet the organization, groomed under their leadership, is filled with highly motivated, high performance employees. The Steelers provide an inspiring culture in which to work.

Some of the most inspiring organizations are led by leaders who are not necessarily dynamic personalities but are always led by those who are governed by inspiring standards.

Mr. Rooney inspires with values that flow from his heart, based on a deep faith, love of his family, knowledge of human motivation and understanding of the game. His core beliefs demonstrate “contagious humility” but do not need to be written on paper. He knows how to articulate them and how to live them day in and day out. And others watch him very closely and learn.

Trust is the key to effective leadership

Why is Mr. Rooney such an effective leader? We asked that question of many in the Steelers organization, past and present, and discovered a simple truth. People trust him. Trust is the most important issue in leadership. Nothing moves without it.

For you as a leader, your top priority must be to earn the trust of subordinates, customers and third parties. This cannot be achieved with gimmicks, rah-rah speeches, glitzy advertising campaigns or even record-breaking sales. It can only be achieved through authentic behavior demonstrated consistently, every day, time after time. The highest levels of trust happen at the convergence of competence and character.

Trust (credibility) is the convergence of competency (winning championships) and character (doing the right thing)

The Steelers equally value two standards — the competency standard and the character standard. They believe it is much better to influence people with character and competence than with charisma.

Be clear about your ‘main thing’

The Steelers’ Lombardi Trophies, symbolic of their Super Bowl victories, are proudly displayed behind glass at the team’s offices. They are not there to be boastful of past glories, but rather to inspire the players, coaches and staff about the mission ahead. Retired Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said that he never walked down that hall without looking at the display, because he recognized the passion, pride, loyalty and commitment they cultivate.

The Steelers operate with a crystal clear mission. Mr. Rooney’s desire and willingness to hold himself and the team accountable to this standard sets the trajectory for success. The bottom line is that the Steelers rarely are in a rebuilding mode, a burden so common to teams that regularly start over.

This is not a confused organization. When the Steelers come into training camp, they expect to win the Super Bowl, as they have every year since the Noll era took shape in the early 1970s. Noll’s expectations and standards were always the same. In 1980, after the team had just captured its fourth NFL title, his message at training camp was unchanged – his team was going to compete for the championship. The same was true for Noll’s successor Bill Cowher as it is now with Mike Tomlin.

When he became team president in 2003, Art II made it very clear that it was time to win another Super Bowl, since the team had not played for the title since 1996. And the following year, Ben Roethlisberger’s second season, the team captured another Lombardi Trophy, beating the Seattle Seahawks. When players pull on the black and gold uniform, they know they will be compared to the Super Bowl greats of the 1970s, fairly or unfairly.

Tunch Ilkin on ‘My First Time in the Black and Gold’


The first time I put on the Steelers black and gold uniform in 1980, I felt like, “Wow,” I was part of this great tradition. My next thought was, “I better be up to this task. This is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is the power of the standard. Contrasted with some other NFL teams, they primarily are not in the entertainment business, but instead are in the winning championships business.

Omar Kahn, a Steelers salary cap executive, says that when negotiating player salaries, he does not compare dollar amounts that comparable players on other teams are receiving, but rather to comparable Steelers.

Is your mission so clear that everyone can understand it, own it, contribute to it and pass it on? Do your people understand the mission as clearly as you do?

Asked a different way, would you enthusiastically rehire every person on your team if you had the opportunity? Do they understand and live the mission? Do they have the potential to be one of the best in their position three to five years from now?

‘Feel the Power’
Years ago, the NFL launched an advertising campaign to reach younger fans. A new Steelers executive, taking his cue from the league, but without consulting Mr. Rooney first, began to promote the league’s ambitious brand campaign with a slogan reading “NFL - Feel the Power!”

The executive quickly placed the bold signs all around Three Rivers Stadium. Many covered up Steelers logos and overshadowed ads from the team’s sponsors. When Mr. Rooney came to work the next day, he saw that the NFL audaciously had taken over his team’s workplace.

Even as one of the NFL’s most enthusiastic supporters, Mr. Rooney knows that the Steelers are not necessarily synonymous with the NFL in all things, and that Pittsburgh is not the same as other higher-profile cities. At his core, he understands Pittsburgh is its own city with its own team, whose people are hard-working and humble. The new slogan just did not reflect that.

Mr. Rooney sent word to his executive that “We do not feel the power in Pittsburgh.” The signs came down before the Steelers’ next home game.

Are there mixed signals being sent within your organization that betray your underlying beliefs and principles?

Be consistent in living your values and beliefs
All of the Steelers’ core values and beliefs were summarized by the Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert and marketing director Tony Quatrini during interviews for this book. In Colbert’s view, it is doing the right thing in every situation. He understands that the Rooneys have a compass for knowing what the right thing is and how to transfer that throughout the organization. Quatrini says that the Steelers’ way of making decisions is to “rely on your conscience” and “do the right thing.”

‘Our fans know when to cheer’
Sometimes doing what is right means having moral fortitude and good taste. This describes how the Steelers feel about cheerleaders, and why they are one of only a handful of NFL teams without them. In conservative Pittsburgh, it is easy to understand why the provocative image cheerleaders can portray has led to this decision. In Mr. Rooney’s eyes, it is a choice that is best for the team and its loyal base of fans. As he once quipped, “We do not need cheerleaders. Our fans know when to cheer.”

Integrity and constancy of sponsorships
The Steelers are watchful about preserving the moral integrity and constancy of the team brand. It is one of the reasons they are extremely selective about sponsors. The team has turned down many lucrative sponsorship requests from companies whose products are not in line with Rooney family values, leaving money on the table and opting instead for companies which promote like-minded values. While there may not be much glamor in naming a stadium after a ketchup company, the Steelers justifiably are proud of their relationship with Fortune 500 Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz Company and the name Heinz Field on the stadium.

Faith and spirituality
By all counts, this is a deeply spiritual organization. It cannot be overlooked that the Steelers culture has been shaped by the Rooney family’s Christian faith.

Cowher felt comfortable interacting with his players on a spiritual level. While the team always said the Lord’s Prayer before and after every game in the Noll era, it took on a special meaning in the locker room right after the American Football Conference (AFC) championship victory in 2006, when the Steelers beat the Denver Broncos. Cowher asked the players to hit pause on the celebration and remove their caps. In a moment of quiet, he led his team in prayer, with gratitude for the opportunity to play in Super Bowl XL.

Just before the 2009 Super Bowl, Tomlin said publicly, “First and foremost, I want people to know who I am and what the most important thing is in my life, my relationship with Jesus Christ. Football is what we do; faith is who we are all the time.”

Our society fosters a great temptation to cut corners in order to win, to compromise on values and ethics. Noll used to preach that it is not enough to do the right thing now and then. You have to do things the right way all the time, every time.

Tunch Ilkin on ‘Silicon Spray’

In the early 1980s, linemen on another team began spraying silicone on their uniform jerseys to make them slick and to prevent holding and grabbing by opponents. A few of us decided to follow suit, and a can of spray made its way into the locker room. We stood in line to coat our jerseys, with Ray Pinney going first. Just then Noll walked past. He looked at Pinney and asked, “What are you doing?” Pinney replied, “What does it look like?” Noll was really appalled, with his face contorted in a grimace. “We don’t have to do that,” Noll snapped. “We are the Pittsburgh Steelers. We don’t have to cheat.” He then went to each and every one of the linemen and said, “If you don’t want to be grabbed, punch harder. So you’re not pulled on a twist stunt, punch harder. So you don’t get beaten on a pass rush, punch hard and move your feet. We don’t cut corners.” That moment was one of many over the years where Noll lived the character standard, using it to teach the competency standard, defining what the Steelers way is all about.

Courtesy during conflict
Marketing director Quatrini lives with this standard in mind, learned from his mentor Joe Gordon, retired Steelers public relations director. Gordon knew how to get others to think before speaking, especially in moments of tension or high emotion. If hearing a heated argument, or an angry comment, he would ask: “If the person you just said that to phoned Dan Rooney and repeated your conversation, would you be comfortable with that?” The Steelers seek to resolve team disputes quietly and with civility, demonstrating the desire to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and engendering deep, endearing levels of trust.

When NFL rules required the Steelers in 2008 to divest the ownership interests of Mr. Rooney’s four brothers, who owned gambling operations in violation of recently changed league policy, the process was kept under wraps. The internal details of the change were heated and at time acrimonious within the family, as the franchise brought in outside owners for the first time since the 1940s. But the public was never privy to the tension and turmoil, and in the end the sophisticated corporate transaction was completed and unanimously approved by the 31 other team owners.

Unbending commitment to family
Despite his enormous workload, and constant demands on his time, Mr. Rooney always has kept his wife Pat and their nine children at the center of his life. He made it a practice to be home for dinner, and then after spending the evening together, and with the children in bed, only then would go back to the office and work late into the night.

Cowher was with the Steelers for 14 years, and at the time of his retirement it was no secret that his dedication and love of family prompted his resignation. With one daughter playing basketball in high school and two others playing at Princeton University, his window of opportunity to see them in person was narrow. And after tragedy struck his family, when his wife Kaye contracted cancer and died in 2010, he was able to be there for her.

Tomlin makes it no secret that when he is at home, his wife and children are his number one priority. He likes to have breakfast with his kids and engage in meaningful conversation about life, school and values. Tomlin relishes driving them to school, coaching their sports teams and helping with homework. He makes it clear that his primary purpose in life, in his children’s eyes, is to be their father, not the Steelers’ head coach.

Community outreach
When Tunch joined the team, he was impressed with how many former Steelers stars were involved significantly in community outreach, notably Franco Harris, Jon Kolb, Larry Brown, Mike Webster, Mel Blount, Andy Russell and Robin Cole, among others. He also learned that The Chief quietly helped local families in need, such as underwriting college tuition for underprivileged students. By observing closely, Tunch learned “that’s what you do.”

In Pittsburgh, perhaps as nowhere else, the fans, community and team are enmeshed in their identity. Far more ex-Steelers stay here after retirement and remain involved than other major franchises. The fans love it that the Steelers are one of them. The list is impressive – Blount’s annual dinner roast. Russell with Children’s Hospital and Ray Mansfield/Dapper Dan Charities. Cole with prostate cancer awareness. Webster with the Spina Bifida Association. Tunch with Light of Life Rescue Mission. These are the right things that strengthen a community’s wellness infrastructure and pull on people’s heartstrings.

Labor relations
Mr. Rooney has long been regarded as sympathetic to the interests of his players. In 1987, as collective bargaining negotiations broke down between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, a strike became inevitable.

Tunch Ilkin on ‘The Strike of 1987’

I was the Steelers’ player representative at the time the strike loomed. Mr. Rooney approached me with a simple request: “Keep ‘em together,” he said of the players. As the strike began, the players had to find alternative sources for exercise and practice since they were not allowed to use the Steelers’ facilities. Quietly, the Steelers made the North Side training facility available for players so that workouts and practices could continue un-officially. Mr. Rooney called me one day and said, “I hear you’re looking for a place to practice. There is a key to our North Side practice field on Mary Ann’s desk. You didn’t get it from me.”

Another way the Steelers showed deep loyalty to their players was how they handled replacement players and striking players once the conflict ended. Not all of the 45 strikers were guaranteed jobs, as some of the replacements were good enough to stay. While Mr. Rooney told me that this was the risk of taking a strike, he also made an extraordinary offer – every striking player released would receive checks representing two additional games played, in essence one-eighth of their salary. That was more than fair on the Steelers’ part, an exceptional gesture, which he was under no obligation to make. It left a deep impression on everyone on the team.

The following year, as The Chief was in his last illness in a Pittsburgh hospital, I went to visit him. We started talking about the labor situation. Even though the strike was over, there still was no new contract. But we all realized the importance of a new collective bargaining agreement. The Chief was concerned that the players and owners were at odds, and it was looming over the league. The Chief looked at me and said earnestly, as though his son (who signed my paycheck) and I were peers, “You and Dan, you’re the leaders, you have to keep the two sides together and do what’s good for the game.” The Steelers always have had an understanding that they were stewards of pro football and needed to leave it better than they found it.

Results matter, but at what cost?
Leaders of all types, long measured on results and winning, may easily try to dismiss the inconvenience of maintaining character at the trade-off of successful results. To be sure, wins matter and provide clout, classifying you as a top producer.

The bottom line is that without results, leaders have no credibility. Either they produce, or they do not. It is that harsh. Steelers fans would not care as much about how great a person Mr. Rooney is without the Lombardi trophies. Tomlin could be the greatest father in the world and oozing with high moral standards – but if he does not win, fans would expect him to be fired.

On the other hand, many leaders who regularly achieve their goals violate honesty and trust. In our findings, success based on shortcuts will not be sustainable and will taste and smell bad for everyone around you.

Self-sabotage, the ‘five A’s’
Leaders who have great talent but lack depth of character or integrity are headed for disaster. We have found a fascinating phenomenon – that when the accomplishments of self-absorbed leaders surpass their character, they inevitably and subconsciously will find ways to sabotage themselves. It happens time and again, a dark flaw stalking virtually every leader. In our view, self-sabotage often can be observed as one or more of the five A’s:

• Arrogance
• Aloneness and isolation
• Adventure seeking and irrational risk taking
• Adultery
• Addiction

When success surpasses self-leadership, the result is self-destruction and subconscious self-sabotage.

Tunch Ilkin on ‘Problem Players’

Before a key game, one of the Steelers stars made a controversial remark about his contract to the news media. Reporters came running to me for a reaction. When I asked Coach Cowher how I should respond, he said that every team has an a**hole and that it stinks when he’s your best player.

Problem players and the ‘Steelers Way’

It has become coach-speak in NFL circles that coaches do not always treat everybody the same, but will treat everybody fair. How do you handle someone who gets the results, but violates the company’s character standards or is poor in character values? Where do you draw the line?

No leader is bullet proof. The problem often begins when he or she slips into isolation. We have found that the more successful someone is, the easier it is to surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear or listen to their own counsel, versus advisors who really care about the leader’s best interest. Self-counsel is the most dangerous kind. The Bible states, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

The number one problem with leaders is ego, which takes down more organizations than anything else combined. It is important for leaders to welcome critical accountability, and to have an inner circle who can help a leader get well, rather than to feel well.

Deal with the dark side of your personality
Every leader has a dark side rooted in his or her past in some way. The best leaders learn how to bring these shadows into the light, behaviors and thoughts that otherwise threaten to sabotage their growth and limit effectiveness. Do you know how to deal with your deepest shadows with courage and honesty? Who in your life is able to tell you the hard truth and has your permission to do so?

A leader’s blind spot
Quite often, we have found that leaders themselves are the problem, blinded to his or her faults. Very few leaders have the courage to surround themselves with others who will take the risk of giving honest feedback. Typically, self-made leaders with Type A or controlling personalities are surrounded by yes-men. To make a breakthrough, leaders have to be able to look themselves in the mirror, with authenticity, and then encourage their troops to “evaluate me” with constructive feedback. It is the mark of a truly great leader. We need others to truthfully look for our blind spots and identify what is missing, with an eye toward change.

The bottom line on problem players
The NFL has very few choir-boys. Throughout the years, the Steelers and all teams in the league have had their share of problem players. What the Steelers know how to do well is identify who stays, and who goes, and how best to reach that difficult decision. In making this call, they weigh whether to keep a star and risk drawing the ire of the fans and news reporters, or trade him to another team, where he might rebound, or make an example by an outright release, or just deal with it and play on.

The bottom line is judging whether the player is good enough to help the team achieve its standard – playing for the NFL championship – but also especially whether the rest of the team is mature enough to handle the distraction and avoid the erosion of a healthy team culture.

Unless a team can absorb the individual aberration, balanced against the greater good of the whole, a player who is not committed to “doing the right thing” will damage the organization and destroy its credibility and trust.

It may seem like a double standard when the Steelers deal with different players differently. Results definitely matter and will cover a multitude of shortcomings. But in the long run, even Super Bowl results will not offset a lack of integrity, nor will “doing the right thing” offset an absence of results. Competency and character always converge to sustain trust and credibility.

Trust: the one thing making the biggest difference in an organization
The most important quality of every sports team, organization, marriage or church, if removed, will destroy team chemistry, community credibility and customer satisfaction. Even deepest love is – you guessed it – trust!

On the other hand, if trust is developed through defining one’s life or organization’s mission and mastering the skills needed to live it, while sincerely desiring to “do the right thing,” it has the potential to create sustainable success in every area of one’s life.

Tom Rath’s Strengths Based Leadership cites Gallup research on trust showing that the chances of employees being truly, productively engaged at work, without trusting the organization’s leaders, are just 8.3 percent. In comparison, if trusting the leadership, the chances are greater than 50 percent that workers will be effective.

“Can I trust this person?” It is the number one question that followers constantly ask about their leaders. Can you be trusted as a leader? It is the number one question people ask about you!

Key Questions:

1. Does everyone you lead understand the mission as clearly as you do?
2. Are there mixed signals being sent within your team that betray your underlying beliefs and principles?
3. Is your mission so clear that everyone can understand it, own it, contribute to it and pass it on? Do your people understand the mission as clearly as you do?
4. Would you enthusiastically rehire every person on your team if you had the opportunity? Do they have the potential to be one of the best in their position three to five years from now?
5. How often do you show gratitude to your team and celebrate wins together?
6. Does your team have great chemistry and camaraderie that, even in times of adversity, bind them more closely together?

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