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Lead Your Team Leadership

Looking For a Great Leader? What You Can Learn From the NFL

Looking For a Great Leader? What You Can Learn From the NFL
Hall of Fame NFL head coach Bill Parcells / Credit: Debby Wong/Shutterstock

Just because someone has worked for a successful leader doesn't mean that they, too, will experience the same success when put in charge.

While being the protégé of a high-prestige leader might provide some initial career benefits, those advantages tend to decline as time goes on, according to a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

The study's authors reached their conclusions after studying the career outcomes of almost 1,300 coaches in the National Football League over 30 years.

The researchers discovered that although acolytes — individuals who had worked under a high-prestige head coach — were 52 percent more likely to be promoted than nonacolytes, they also experienced less success in the long run than their nonacolyte peers.

The research revealed that only 46 percent of the coaches who worked under a successful coach received another promotion or a lateral move, compared to 57 percent of those who had never worked under a high-prestige leader in the past. [See Related Story: 35 Inspiring Leadership Quotes]

"Working under a highly successful leader provides initial career benefits in terms of getting a promotion at another organization," Craig Crossland, one of the study's authors and a professor of management in the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, said in a statement. "However, the benefits are short-lived and the long-term effects may even be harmful."

While the research was focused solely on NFL coaches, the study's authors believe the results apply to other fields.

"The NFL is an intense, hypercompetitive environment where 'actual' performance can be measured somewhat more easily than in many [other] situations," Crossland said. "This means that the effects we see are likely to be stronger and last longer in the corporate environment."

Crossland believes one key takeaway from the research is that organizations shouldn't be hiring protégés of successful leaders just because those acolytes worked for a high-prestige leader. 

"Hiring managers need to be especially wary when evaluating someone who has worked for a highly-respected industry leader, but who doesn't have a track record of independent achievement themselves," Crossland told Business News Daily. "In those situations, it's worth asking, 'would we hire this person if they hadn't worked for the industry leader?"  

The study was co-authored by Martin Kilduff, a professor at the University College London; Wenpin Tsai, a professor at Pennsylvania State University; and Matthew Bowers, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.