What do the NFL’s most legendary general managers do when making tough decisions at the highest level? Michael Lombardi, former NFL general manager and three-time Super Bowl winner, joins our guest host Annie Duke, to talk about decision-making insights learned from 3 decades in the game, working alongside coaching and general manager legends Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers, Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, among others. Michael and Annie discuss how popular narratives have the power to derail good decision-making, why it’s important to get comfortable being uncomfortable, the value of curiosity on our personal life journeys, why offensive coordinators need to think like defensive coordinators, why true loyalty involves sharing unpopular perspectives, and Michael’s vision for “change departments” in all organizations in the NFL and beyond.
Former NFL general manager and three-time Super Bowl winner Michael Lombardi was most recently on the New England Patriots coaching staff for Bill Belichick after thirty years working in the front offices of the San Francisco 49ers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Oakland Raiders, and the Cleveland Browns (where he was general manager).
In late 2018, Lombardi released Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL, featuring a foreword by Bill Belichick, the book has sold over 20,000 copies. Gridiron Genius reveals what makes football organizations tick at the championship level. Lombardi shares what he learned working with coaching legends Bill Walsh of the 49ers, Al Davis of the Raiders, and Bill Belichick of the Patriots, among others, during his three decades in football.
Lombardi now hosts his own show on VSIN (Vegas Stats and Information Network) called The Lombardi Line, daily from 12-2 and on weekends from 10-12. In addition, he has a highly acclaimed podcast, The GM Shuffle, with Adnan Virk.
- Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level – Michael Lombardi (2019)
- Think Again: The Power of Knowing what You Don’t Know – Adam Grant (2021)
- In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-run Companies – Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman (1982)
- Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell – Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle (2019)
- The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win – Maria Konnikova (2021)
- Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes – Maria Konnikova (2013)
- Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction – Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner (2015)
- A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes – Peter Bevelin (2013)
- ”That Sunk-Cost Feeling” – James Surowiecki, New Yorker (2013)
- “Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger Has 1 Simple Rule to Outsmart the Competition”, Inc. (2019)
Annie: I’m excited to welcome my guest today, and my friend, Michael Lombardi. Michael has spent three decades as a football executive and media analyst, working alongside coaching and general manager legends Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers, Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots among others.
A former NFL general manager and three times Super Bowl winner. Michael is a speaker on leadership and author of Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level, as well as the host of the GM Shuffle podcast. Welcome to the show, Michael.
Michael: Thank you, Annie. I appreciate it. Your ears must’ve been ringing because I spoke to the University of Arizona’s football team last week. And one of the coaches on the team, the offensive line coach, is Brandon Carroll, Pete Carroll’s son. So in my presentation I always talk about the play that really made you and I become friends, because you started your book with the play and I started my book with the play too. I talked about the play as it really was about culture. And you talk about the play as it really was the right call. So it was interesting to give that presentation in front of a Carroll, which probably brought back bad memories, so that might not have been the best thing to do!
Annie: Well, actually I’d love to start there. So first of all, I’d love to hear your telling of the story of how we ended up getting connected to each other.
Michael: So I love reading leadership books and I don’t know if somebody sent me your book or I [just] read [it]. I have a bunch of friends that have been incredible friends to me that I’ve met over the years. Ken Sugalski is one of them. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut, and he constantly sends me stuff through the internet, through email, through texts, always trying to engage my mind, and I think he sent me a copy of your book. And when I opened it up I read the beginning of your book about the play. For the people listening to this, it was Super Bowl 49, there were 24 seconds left to go in the game. Annie starts talking about why running the ball would have been the dumbest call of all time and how throwing was right. And I opened my book talking about the same thing from completely different perspectives. So anyway, then I reached out, I can remember sending you an email and that’s how we connected.
Annie: Yeah. So you lobbed into me, and what I remember is, “Hey, I have a book coming out in September,” which was Gridiron Genius, “and I opened my book with the exact same play that you do.” And that was back in 2018, we’ve been friends ever since.
What I loved about the way that we talked about those different perspectives has to do with what both of us talk about quite a bit with decision-making. So I was talking about it just from [the perspective of] “Let’s work out the odds and figure out was it better for Pete Carroll to call a pass play or to call a running play?” For people who maybe don’t know: he called a pass play, it was intercepted, and I think people today are still saying that was the worst call in Super Bowl history. And you, of course, were coming at it from the perspective of having been with the Patriots, knowing Bill Belichick, knowing the way he thinks, knowing what was going on. So I’d love to hear your take on it, from the standpoint of: what was the decision-making [process] and how does that show us how great Bill Belichick really was?
Michael: Well, remember, this is the biggest stage you could possibly be on. Right? And he had prepared the team for this situation going back to March. I wrote about it in Gridiron Genius. He basically told the defensive staff, “hey, we need a goal line defense,” which meant we need five big guys in the defensive front, and “We need three corners in the back end that can play the pass. So we want to be strong against the run, but not weaken ourselves against the pass.” And we practice that [for] all of May during our OTA days, all of June during our minicamp days. And then we practice it all of training camp, July and August, and then all during the season every Friday, and then all in January getting ready for playoff games. And the first time we actually called that defense was that time, with 24 seconds left to go. Of course, naturally, I’m in the press box screaming “Call timeout! Call timeout!” and Belichick is just staring at Pete Carroll’s sideline and he sees them somewhat disorganized and he says, “play goal line nickel.” So we trot on a college free agent who was never drafted, who played at West Alabama, who is only playing in the game because the kid he played behind got benched at halftime, and he makes the play of the game, Malcolm Butler intercepts the pass, and we win.
And so, it was really a decision-making [process] that lended itself to preparation, observation, and then being able to capture the moment at the right time. In his thought process with a zillion people screaming in his ear to call timeout, with a zillion people telling him what to do, he was able to block out the distractions and the noise and just focus on what he wanted to do. And that’s what makes him so effective.
Annie: Yeah, I think that’s so amazing because you talk about what it takes to be a great decision-maker, and there seems to be some really unusual things about Bill Belichick that most people aren’t able to do. And it seems to be things that addle other people who are in his position. One of them is “What are other people gonna think?” Because you get into this position where other people are yelling at you to do certain things like in this case, call a timeout, for example. Or in Pete Carroll’s case, actually, to run the ball. And somehow I feel like the greats are able to step back from that and see the situation and be willing to go against consensus and be okay with that. That’s certainly one of them.
But another one that you talk about that I’d love to dig into with Belichick is you really hone in on the idea that he’s really good at cutting ties, and understanding when you have to cut the tie. So I think one of the examples that you talk about is trading Drew Bledsoe in 2002, but I’d love to understand how you think about that in relation to Belichick and why you think that that is such a hallmark for him as something that makes him very special?
Michael: I think Belichick doesn’t see his job as a football coach. He sees his job as a trader, a hedge fund manager. And so if you run a giant hedge fund, you’re constantly looking at the fund to see how it’s performing. And you don’t love the fund, you love the money, you love the performance, and when the performance isn’t doing well you want to get rid of the performance.
Belichick’s mind works like that. There is this personal love affair that goes into coaching. “I love my players. I love my guys. I’ll fight for them.” Great, that’s wonderful. But there’s also the aspect of the job that requires analytical, clinical thinking: when the fund isn’t performing, we’ve got to do something with the fund.
And so Drew Bledsoe, if we call him a fund, even though he’s a person, he was underperforming based on the value he was being paid, based on the production he was lending. So for Belichick, that’s an easy decision: I’m getting rid of an asset that underperforms in exchange for something that I can recoup my value.
And that’s how he analyzes every decision he makes. And it’s hard. Bill Walsh was exactly the same way, he saw himself as a trader, hedge fund operator, that he was going to divorce himself from the emotional attachment. And it’s hard for us to do when making decisions. There’s so many biases that come in, you know, “I like that guy, he’s a good part of the team, it’s challenging for me,” make excuses for them, “Well, you know it was a tough year [with] COVID.” Belichick’s very clinical about it: he makes those decisions and he moves forward. And I think it’s partly because he’s able to not really attach himself to the person. He’s really looking at the value of the stock.
“I think Belichick doesn’t see his job as a football coach. He sees his job as a trader, a hedge fund manager. And so if you run a giant hedge fund, you’re constantly looking at the fund to see how it’s performing. And you don’t love the fund, you love the money, you love the performance… and that’s how he analyzes every decision he makes. And it’s hard. Bill Walsh was exactly the same way… he divorced himself from the emotional attachment. And it’s hard for us to do when making decisions. There’s so many biases that come in… he’s able to not really attach himself to the person. He’s really looking at the value of the stock.” — Michael Lombardi
Annie: So I think that particular quality that you hone in on is so interesting. Because there’s work from somebody named Barry Staw that shows that you can actually predict the playing time in the NBA of a player based on their draft pick, separate and apart from skill. So if you completely normalized for skill and you take two equally skilled players, the one that was the higher draft pick will get more playing time. And in fact, even if they’re lower in skill, they’ll get more playing time and they’re less likely to be traded.
So now you’re talking about Belichick and it feels like you’re saying he doesn’t fall into that trap at all. He’s in fact he’s the opposite and he’s quite clinical about it. Are there other ways in which you can think that this “going against consensus” [strategy works]? Because now you’ve given two examples of this ability to do something that other people can’t, both in the trading, and then also in this [ability of] ignoring the noise in your ear to “Call a timeout! Call a timeout!” and he knows what he’s supposed to do. Are there other things about those coaches that you see that are similar?
Michael: I think what he’s really able to do more than anything is that he doesn’t fall for the narrative. He always generates his opinion from the anti narrative. And I think Munger speaks to this. You know, Munger talks about how he spends most of his career coming up with an idea, and as soon as he does, he wants to spend the rest of his time destroying the idea. That’s really what he’s after. He’s after the destruction of his own ideas and he gains great pleasure from it. He thinks it’s the reason for his success. And Belichick understands there’s a narrative about things, because remember, the world that he’s coaching in or working in has outside forces called the media. So they drive a narrative that could be completely false, but they drive the narrative and they can sway public opinion. Belichick takes the anti approach. If I said to Belichick, Player Y is a great player, he would spend most of his time trying to figure out why I’m wrong. Whereas most people would just say, “well, if you think that’s good, then I think that’s good too. I want to be with you.”
Belichick is comfortable being uncomfortable. He’s comfortable being in an uncomfortable situation. And for him, he’s not trying to… and I just heard Adam Grant say this in his new book [Think Again] and I think it’s just so good. He said, I don’t want you to think what I think, I want you to understand how I think. And I think that’s what Belichick’s trying to do is [work out] how are you thinking. I don’t care what you think, I want to know how you think about it. And most of the time in the NFL, 90% of the people think based on the narrative that they read.
Annie: You’re talking about Bill Belichick. You’re talking about Bill Walsh. I mean, obviously the greats of the game.
So you’re Michael Lombardi. What is your journey? You’re talking about the greatest people in the game and having this relationship with them where you can get inside of their head. So how does it all start for you?
Michael: You know, there’s an old saying “the world gets out of the way for somebody who knows where they want to go.” I knew where I wanted to go at an early age, and I knew I wanted to be in football. I knew I wanted to be a general manager. And I just tried to plot a course to get there. And I ended up at UNLV [University of Nevada, Las Vegas] working for free and I got my first job in 1984. I was a scouting intern to drive Coach Walsh around. I made $20,000. I lived in this apartment in Menlo Park… no way was it an apartment, it was a garage with a wall in it. And I got robbed often because the address was Menlo Park, but it was really East Palo Alto. I got fooled on the zoning and I got robbed a bunch.
And so I was just able to learn. I think one of the hardest things in learning is there has to be a real true interest in learning. Like if you put math problems in front of me, I’m probably going to be bad at it, but you put Coach Walsh in front of me and I can ask him questions about something I love, I’m going to learn a lot. I was able to drive him in a car and I played carpool karaoke with him. I asked him a thousand questions, and he would answer me.
One of the questions that he answered [for] me is—and I humbly say this to you—is he said “Do you know who Tom Peters is?” And I said, “No, coach, I have no idea who Tom Peters is.” He said that he just wrote a book with Bob Waterman called In Search of Excellence. Go over to the Stanford bookstore—because there was no Amazon in 1984—and buy the book and read it. And I did, and it changed my life. I have it on my shelf signed by Peters today because it changed my life, because it got me into Warren Bennis. It got me into Peter Drucker. It got me into these people, these management [leaders], because Walsh wanted me to think… not like a coach. He thought coaches were… he used to sometimes call them gym teachers, because they would just roll the ball out and let everybody play kickball. He wanted to be intellectually challenging.
And from that moment he influenced my life and that made me get into these areas, which then helped me get hooked up with Belichick… I wouldn’t say Bill’s read a thousand books on Warren Bennis or on Peter Drucker, or any of that. But he practices that just through his own ability, much from the Naval academy. Belichick grew up in the Naval academy, so all the leadership principles and all the ways that he believes in, are truly Navy principles that he just took with them when he grew up.
Annie: So I hear this theme of, you know, you have football coaches, and then you have these guys. And these guys are thinking in a different way. They’re getting down deep into what makes a great decision-maker and thinking about decisions as predictions of the future. And it sounds like when you start to think about trading, the way that you’re talking about it is that they’re thinking about “What’s the expected value of this player? How much am I paying for this player?”
Obviously we can think about what happens with Billy Beane and people start to really think about baseball that way. But it doesn’t seem to be something that has made its way into the NFL in the same way. And I’m curious as to your thoughts on… obviously Belichick and Walsh are such standouts in how they think in this more analytical way. Why do you think the NFL has been comparatively slow to adopt these kinds of more analytical, data driven approaches? Is it something cultural? Is that something about the type of person who becomes a head coach? Even if you just look at something like what’s the quality of their 4th down decisions, which we actually have quite a few analytics on. Right? We know a lot about that.
Michael: I think a lot of this comes from the fact that coaches are taught the scheme first, not leadership first. So we always think a coach is a great leader, but in leadership you have to have a lot of expertise in different areas to help you lead. And I think Belichick, through his Naval experience, understood that. [Bill] Parcells through his army background learned to do that.
We don’t spend enough time on teaching leadership and part of teaching leadership is [teaching] making decisions. If you’re an NFL head coach, you should read at least 20 books on decision-making every off season. And then you should take whatever you’ve learned from [Annie Duke’s] books, from so many of Adam Grant’s books, all these books on decision-making, and you should integrate them into your decision-making. And yet we don’t have that because we don’t have the curiosity. We just think “well, that’s not a hard decision.”
“If you’re an NFL head coach, you should read at least 20 books on decision-making every off season, and then you should take whatever you’ve learned from [Annie Duke’s] books, from so many of
Adam Grant’s books… and you should integrate them into your decision-making.” — Michael Lombardi
How many times have you heard somebody say to you, “well, the decision is A or B.” No! There’s never an A or B decision. It’s always A, B, C, D, and E. And the ones who can see the C, D, and Es are the people that make better decisions. And yet in the NFL, I think we just spent so much time [thinking] “oh, well that’s the scheme. I gotta get a quarterback…” and then they don’t spend enough time in their own development, their own growth mindset. And I think that’s what hurts.
“How many times have you heard somebody say to you, “well, the decision is A or B.” No! There’s never an A or B decision. It’s always A, B, C, D, and E. And the ones who can see the C, D, and Es
are the people that make better decisions.” — Michael Lombardi
Annie: So let me ask you a question… as far as this separation of leadership from living in a scheme and trying to slot in who goes into the scheme. The thing that I’m curious about is this ability to step outside and say, “I need to read a bunch of books. I need to think about how to develop myself as a leader. I need to think about what the alternatives are that are different than the ones that I’m already thinking about.”
Don’t you think that that’s somewhat inherently difficult for someone who’s risen to the position of a head coach. I wonder how much you think there’s this danger that goes along with success, that you’re successful so you have the answers and then this idea of reading 20 books in the off season, “Well, why would I have to do that?”
Michael: Because I think for you to continue to have success, you have to have curiosity. You’ve gotta be able to… you write books, I write books, right? So when you read other people’s books or you go for a walk in the afternoon, you come up with a better idea for your own book. You listen to Adam Grant’s book or read his book, or you listen to Malcolm Gladwell or listen to Tim Harford’s podcast on Cautionary Tales, you learn something that you can apply to what you’re doing.
You’re not going to be an expert in everything, but you’ve got to have curiosity to learn about everything. And I think that’s what falls short. We get so busy and caught up in the moment, right? “I got to do my job.” No, your job is… If I said to 99.9% of the coaches, “Did you work out today?” They would all say, yeah. If I asked them if they read a book today, they would say, “I don’t have time to read a book.” So what that statement is, is that their mindful health is not as important as their physical health.
Annie: And so would you say that the biggest mistake you see head coaches making is that they stop growing intellectually?
Michael: They do. And most of the time… look, it’s a harder job to get the United States Senator. There’s only 32 of them so it’s a challenging job to get, right? So what happens is they get consumed by the job. They don’t really know how to do the job. So they’re on the job. They know they have two or three years to succeed at the job. So everything is based on situational values, not sustainable values. So they make every decision based on situations, not on how I can sustain something, because the owners are so willing to make changes so rapidly. It’s really a system that eats its own.
Annie: I’m so happy that you brought that up, because that’s a question that I’d love to dig in with you on. So if you’re Bill Walsh or you’re Bill Belichick, it feels like—at least at the time when I could say their names and people would know who they were—It feels like they’re somewhat protected from career risk, right? What’s going to happen when the fans start screaming and you do something weird and you go for it on 4th and 5 and you lose this really important game. And it feels like their jobs are always at risk.
So I’d love to hear what you think… two things, and go in whichever direction you’d like. One is: how much do you think that matters? That the structure of the NFL and the culture of the NFL in terms of how much head coaches get backed up and are allowed to be creative and to do things that are maybe less consensus by the GM or the owner, and how is that negatively impacting or positively impacting decision-making?
But then the second thing I’d love to know about is a chicken and the egg problem. Is it that someone like a Belichick or a Walsh is naturally thinking that way? This is what gets them to the point where they have the great success that then obviously builds on itself and frees it up or are they good and they have success early, and then they become great partly because they have the protection of the success?
Michael: I think that they become great because they’re willing to go against the current. They’re willing to zig when everybody else zags, and I think if you study any great movement, it’s always been a zig against zag.
And I think you have to have conviction of your heart. I think if you know you’re on a short-term deal… Let’s use Pete Carroll, for example. So Pete Carroll is the head football coach of the New York Jets. It’s his first job as a head coach. And he waited most of his career. He did it exactly the way you do it. He went from college, worked his way up through college, became a coordinator in college, became a linebacker coach in the NFL, became a coordinator in the NFL. He gets his first job as the head coach of the New York Jets.
The owner of the Jets at the time was a man by the name of Leon Hess. Leon Hess of Hess Oil is a brilliant man. He’s from Asbury Park, New Jersey. You know, he’s started out in his family business. He went bankrupt during the depression. He brought it back. And now he’s one of the wealthiest men in the world. Well, Leon Hess should be a good judge of character. So after a bad season with Pete Carroll as the head coach, he has an opportunity to hire Rich Kotite as the head coach of the Jets.
Annie: Oh, I lived in Philadelphia in the 80s.
Michael:That’s right. So you know that: here’s the smartest and best businessman in the world who actually thinks he’s going to fire Pete Carroll to then hire Rich Kotite. And people in Philly laughed at him much like you are!
Annie: If people could see my face right now, they would see that I’m like “what?!”
Michael: So he fires Pete Carroll. And so now Pete Carroll’s depressed. He’s just lost his job. So a couple of years later, Pete Carroll gets hired in New England. After two years and reaching the playoffs, he then gets fired again. This time, Belichick replaces him. So he’s gone from the worst coach replacing him to now, which is the best coach replacing him. But here’s the point of the story that I think people need to understand: what happened then was that Pete Carroll said, “I’m tired of doing it other people’s way.” He got the head coaching job at USC, he went back to USC, he read John Wooden’s book and he said, “You know what? I am going to do what I do. I’m going to be Pete Carroll. I’m not going to be a phony. I’m not going to be another version of somebody else. I’m going to be the Pete Carroll that I know.” And he had great success, and he’s taken that from USC to Seattle. But it took those two moves to get there.
I think oftentimes as leaders, we want to put our toe in the water. Well, we’re not really ready for that. We’re not really ready to do that. You know, I don’t have the backing of the front office. Look, you’re going to get fired if you do it the other way, because imitation leadership is the quickest way to get fired.
Annie: So I love what you just said. I think that a lot of times, as decision-makers we get caught up in trying to fend off the short-term result. When we’re doing that, what we give up is real long-term success. So if you think about Belichick, Bill Walsh, maybe throw Pete Carroll in there. What you’re saying is they all also make their own path. Like the whole point is that they’re different and that’s what makes them great.
If you were to think about, let’s just say Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick, who you’re so intimately acquainted with. If you had to pick one thing that’s similar between the two of them that makes them great, and then a difference between the two of them that separately makes each of them great…
Michael: Well, I think that what makes them both great is their ability to think differently than everybody else. And their ability to be divergent in thought and come up with solutions based on the hand they’re dealt not based on what everybody else is doing.
And I think the difference is fairly easy. What they’re opposite at is: Belichick is trained defensively and he knows offense really well through that training. Walsh is trained on offense and knows defense really well through that training. And so for them, which most people wouldn’t realize is because of their training, they spent more time understanding the opposite of their training, to help their training.
My two sons are coaches and so this offseason, one works for the Patriots, one works for the Panthers. Your job this offseason is to pretend you’re the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints. And so learn Dennis Allen’s defense like it’s nothing to you, like you know it better than the back of your hand. And then your job is to learn Todd Bowles defense, and then once you learn defense, now you can attack that defense or attack that offense in ways that you’re not used to doing, and it helps you broaden your scope.
Annie: So I love that because immediately what comes to mind is what Kahneman talks about with the inside and outside view, right? What you’re telling me is that their history—one as a defensive coordinator, and one as an offensive coordinator—allowed them to shift between the two. Because in order to really understand how to run a great defense, you have to get to the outside view and look at it from the perspective of the offense, and vice versa. And so immediately I think: how are you thinking about getting out of your own perspective, into the perspective of someone who’s looking at you from the outside? And if you can marry those two things together, great decision-making will arise.
“In order to really understand how to run a great defense, you have to get to the outside view and look at it from the perspective of the offense, and vice versa. And so immediately I think: how are you thinking about getting out of your own perspective, into the perspective of someone who’s looking at you from the outside? And if you can marry those two things together, great decision-making
will arise.” — Annie Duke
Michael: Right? And so then you have enough confidence to walk into a defensive meeting room, if you’re Walsh, and say, “Look, this is not going to work because here’s really the way they do it.” Or Belichick walking into an offensive room and saying, “Here’s how they’re doing this, and here’s why.” So it broadens your knowledge, and now it makes you a well-rounded coach, and you’re not sitting down the hall when the conversation is going on and you’re not sure what to say.
Annie: Hearing that about Walsh and Belichick is now giving me some trauma about Buddy Ryan!
Michael: Right. Buddy had no interest. Buddy or Jon Gruden, they refuse to move themselves out of their comfort zone. You know, have you ever watched The Wire?
Michael: Okay. Season two of The Wire is about the port and it’s about Frank Sobotka, and Frank Sobotka’s devotion to the port, and how they need to dredge the port, and how they need to do everything… because he’s “remembering when”. And when you “remember when” in the job that you’re in, you’ll be gone. You can’t do that. “Remember when” is the worst form of conversation and it’s the worst thing you can do. Sobotka was saying “ We fought for this country. We made stuff here.” Well, you’ve missed the boat, Frank, you’re no longer… that’s not what what’s going on here. And so you’ve got to understand that if you constantly [approach things] like Buddy, “I’m going to do what I do,” and you never evolve or adapt, eventually it gets you.
Annie: Yeah, obviously he built such an incredible defense. Right? You had Jerome Brown, Reggie White, Clyde Simmons. I mean, it was completely ridiculous. Meanwhile, Randall Cunningham was 70-something percent of the offense.
Annie: So when I hear you talking about this, it seems like the opposite of that. Someone who isn’t able to see the other side of the ball.
Michael: Nor care to see it.
Annie: Nor care to see it, Right. It’s so interesting. And immediately brought up some trauma from being in Philadelphia in the 1980s.
So I’m really interested in one thing that you said: you talk about this total single-minded goal to get to be a GM, which of course you did with the Browns. I find it so interesting that you say that because when I think about your career and what you’ve done in your life, I actually don’t see someone who went down a single-minded path without being able to think outside of that. I mean, first of all, just from how much you were listening to Bill Walsh. Most people wouldn’t have taken that advice [they would have said] “What do I need to go read these books that aren’t about football?” And then the different places that you ended up in football, and then getting into media and podcasting and what you do with The Ringer and then you write this amazing leadership and decision-making book. You start thinking about how do you take what is happening in football and spread that into other areas to help people become better leaders, to become better decision makers, because you saw the lack of it in the NFL. So I just love to hear your thoughts on that, because you describe yourself as so single-minded and I see you as such a polymath.
Michael: Well, I think what happened to me was it took me 58 years to really find my niche. You know, I think the job that I’m currently in is the best job for me. It’s the best job for me, because I can offer advice and counsel to those who ask, and I can give it without worrying about the implications of that advice, whether they enacted or not. When you work in a building, when you work for an organization, you’re in two kinds of jobs: jobs you can make a difference in or jobs you can grow from. And oftentimes, I was always trying to make a difference in a job that I could only grow from, which causes you harm in your career.
Annie: Can you explain the difference?
Michael: Well, because of the hierarchy, if you’re on a job you can only grow from, when people won’t listen to you above you and you give an opinion that’s different than theirs, you’re disloyal. So you can’t make a difference. You can only grow from it. And I had a hard time understanding that.
And so for me, I was always the guy that [they] said, “well, Lombardi’s really smart, but he’s not very loyal because he’ll just say whatever he thinks.” Well that’s probably why I’m better at this job than I was doing the other job, because I can do this without having to worry about upsetting the room. And I can give counsel, and I love writing and I love being able to put my thoughts on paper. So it’s taken me a long time to get here, but I think I finally found the right role for me in my career. And not necessarily with the media, but more with the writing and the consulting, because that gives me the same feelings that I would have working for a team to try to improve a team. Whether it’s hockey, I help a team in hockey, whether it’s football, it’s all the same. The sports are insignificant, the culture is always going to remain the same. So I think it took me a long time to figure out [because] I always thought I would be bored doing a job, and I never felt bored in the NFL. But now looking back, I was probably more bored than ever.
Annie: It’s so interesting what you just said, because as I think about decision-making, even in our discussion about inside-outside view and [the question of] how are you seeing the other side of the ball, [it seems that] somebody willing to speak up and disagree is such a valuable thing to have in your presence. It’s such a valuable thing, what a valuable person. And I think it’s interesting when you go back to this idea of what makes a great leader, what happens in these organizations, how are you thinking about “I’m just in my scheme” and “I needed to fill the spot” and “you need to know your place” and whatnot. That feels like it fits in so much with what’s happening in the culture. It’s part and parcel of how you were always wanting to say what you thought and where you saw things differently. And people were like, “we don’t want any of that.”
Michael: Right. And it’s taken me a long time to get here.
And one of the greatest things that has gotten me here was two years ago this July, when I started [Daily Coach] with three other gentlemen… George Raveling, who was the former head coach at USC in basketball. He was a former head coach at Washington State in basketball. He was the former head coach at Iowa in basketball. He’s a Villanova, grew up in Washington, he played at Villanova. He actually owns the “I Have a Dream” speech. He was on the stage the day Martin Luther King gave that speech. And when Dr. King walked off the stage, Coach Raveling said, “Can I have a copy of that speech?” And Dr. King folded and handed it to him. So, Millie and I were living in LA at the time, I was writing Gridiron Genius, and he and I would go to lunch or dinner once a week, twice a month. We read Trillion Dollar Coach and we said, we should write a daily email for people to read that gives them a coach every day in their inmail box. So we started The Daily Coach and in less than two years we have over 25,000 email subscribers every morning. And it’s forced me to write, along with Coach Rav. We have another young man named Kimati Ramsey, Trevor Kapp writes, and Alex Cervasio writes too. So we have five different people [but] we don’t put our names on anything we write. So it’s always different.
Annie: I would be remiss, Michael, if I did not ask you about Strat-O-Matic.
Michael: Ha! Me and Eric, yeah. Well, that’s what started it all for me because I grew up in this little beach town and I played that Strat-O-Matic baseball game. It was a dice game, they still have it. I still have my boards in my office downtown. I played it and I got fascinated with drafting, I got fascinated with building teams and it just became my… in the summer of… I can remember it by the songs on the record, because we used to have a radio that we would play. We were playing a game, so we would listen to the music as we were doing it. If we thought Linda Bozvichelle was on the beach in her bikini, we would run down there and go swim, but other than that, we were not leaving the room!
Annie: So I know a few people who played a lot of Strat-O-Matic when they were young, as you know, including my husband [Eric]. And then they all seem to be amazing decision-makers by the way. Obviously you were deep into that game. What do you think you were getting from Strat-O-Matic that wasn’t being taught in school? What I’m asking is: would we be better off as a society if kids were taught something like Strat-O-Matic, or playing something like Strat-O-Matic when they were in school?
Michael: Yeah, I think it’s called second order thinking. I think that’s what we learned at Strat-O-Matic. You know, if I do this, what’s the effect of that and how would that decision affect my next decision? It’s a little bit like we should all play chess, and Strat-O-Matic was the chess version for me. It forced me to think strategically and second order thinking. Once I make this decision, where am I going? What am I going to do? And if I move that player here, where do I fill in the blanks over there? You know, and since then, I’ve always tried to have second order thinking in my life. If I did this, where would I go from there? What would I do? With drafting players, if I draft player Y, what’s the back door? What do I get out of this if something falls? So I think we should all teach our kids second order thinking or have them play games that require it.
“I’ve always tried to have second order thinking in my life. If I did this, where would I go from there? What would I do? With drafting players, if I draft player Y, what’s the back door? What do I get out of this if something falls? So I think we should all teach our kids second order thinking
or have them play games that require it.” — Michael Lombardi
Annie: Hmm. So if you could switch out trigonometry for Strat-O-Matic in school…
Michael: It’d be perfect for me. You can’t give me any math equation. That’s why I married Millie. She’s an accountant so I don’t worry about it.
Annie: So you’re so deep in this and you’re now consulting… By the way I love that you’re now consulting with teams, because they’re hiring you to disagree with them, so now you get, you get to finally be in that role.
Michael: And I tell him all this: I think what you should open up in every building is a Change Department. You should have somebody who you hire that [for] every idea you have, their job is to come in and have you change your mind. Just call them the Change Department, have three guys sit in the room and say, “Okay, we want to do [a certain] play, tell me why we shouldn’t do it.”
“I think what you should open up in every building is a Change Department. You should have somebody who you hire that [for] every idea you have, their job is to come in
and have you change your mind.” — Michael Lombardi
Annie: Yeah. That’s that idea of seeing it from the other side of the ball.
Michael: You see it clearer.
Annie: Yeah and just everywhere in your life, try to see it from the other side of the ball.
So obviously you’ve been such a friend to the Alliance for Decision Education and such an amazing practitioner yourself. So I imagine that as you think about what are the effects of the way that we teach kids today in terms of their decision-making, you’re seeing it across the board, both in terms of what’s happening on the organizational level, what’s happening with coaches, but also how equipped are the players to make great decisions for themselves…
What do you think would look different—not just in football, but also in society—if we started actually thinking really clearly about a focus on how do we teach kids to be great decision-makers and we made that a focus of education?
Michael: To make good decisions, you have to really go through all the biases and explain to them what the biases are, because most kids don’t even understand that there’s a competitive bias that’s in something that they’re doing, or there’s a comfortable bias or there’s prejudice bias. I think if we could teach that all decisions have biases in them, and if we could rid ourselves of the bias we’ll make better decisions. But if we’re not aware of them, how do we do that? And I think that’s what we should teach.
“To make good decisions, you have to really go through all the biases and explain to them what the biases are… we could teach [kids] that all decisions have biases in them, and if we could rid ourselves of the bias we’ll make better decisions. But if we’re not aware of them, how do we do that?”
— Michael Lombardi
Annie: What do you think the ripple effects on society would be, if we actually got really good at that?
Michael: I think we’d all make better decisions. And I think the other thing we’d do is process the information that the media has given us. I think part of our problem is that the media has done such a good job of delivering information to us, that it’s [seemingly] eliminated us from having to ask the question: is this good information or bad information? And if we take bias out, if we start to learn about bias, it will challenge the news outlets to present better informed news to us, to not slant the direction. And I’m not Republican or Democratic, this is not a political conversation. It would be: how do they present it to us?
“The media has done such a good job of delivering information to us, that it’s [seemingly] eliminated us from having to ask the question: is this good information or bad information? And if we take bias out, if we start to learn about bias, it will challenge the news outlets to present
better informed news to us, to not slant the direction.” — Michael Lombardi
So I’m a nerd, right? So I love the NBA and I love to listen to coaches talk. And when I was growing up, at the point where we didn’t have 24/7 news channels, I would constantly read the newspaper every morning to see what the coach said at his press conference. And in every article, whether it was The Inquirer, The Bulletin, The Daily News, whatever the news outlet was, I would read it and I would read the quotes from the coach. Well, once they started putting the coach on television in a news conference, I didn’t have to do that anymore and my news intake was completely different because I was watching him and I removed the third party interpretation. I removed whatever bias was in there, it was filtered directly to me. I took the news in, in a better light. I think we have to get to that. And I think if we could teach bias in how people are giving us information, whether they intend to or not, I think it would be more powerful.
Annie: Maybe I’m stretching too far here, but what I hear in everything that you said is this through line. Even when we’re talking about what made Walsh and Belichick so great, there is this idea of: are you just “living in the scheme,” with everybody saying “this is how you do things” and just slotting things into that [framework]? Even in our own life: you do this, you go to your job, you make decisions the way they’ve been made, you follow whatever the rules are and don’t go beyond that. That’s what a lot of people are doing. And then you have some people who emerge from that who are getting outside of themselves, looking at it from the outside, trying to find creative alternatives, constantly questioning, trying to prove they’re wrong and saying, “I don’t accept that the scheme is the scheme.” When you’re talking about this in terms of how we can really improve society through Decision Education, then I’m hearing something that’s very thematically similar: don’t assume that what you see is what you get, think for yourself. Think outside of that; try to find the source. Process that information yourself; think about it from different angles; be creative. And that, really in the end, if we could create more thinkers like that, it would have a really deep and positive effect on society.
“In terms of how we can really improve society through Decision Education… Don’t assume that what you see is what you get. Think for yourself. Think outside of that; try to find the source. Process that information yourself; think about it from different angles; be creative… If we could create more thinkers like that, it would have a really deep and positive effect on society.” — Annie Duke
Michael: I think that’s exactly right. And I think that we all have to focus on what it is we’re really trying to understand. That’s essentially what our jobs are: to figure out what the story is. And if we can’t do that, if we’re relying on ABC or CBS or to get the story, then there’s a filter in it, and then we’ve got the bias that’s coming in. Al Davis taught me that years ago. There’s a reason why that story is written the way it’s written. You figure out why.
Annie: I just love this idea of: we have to equip people to be able to figure out what the story is, what is true? How do you try to navigate your own decisions so that you aren’t just going along with consensus, that you’re willing to figure out what you want and make your own path? And I feel like so much of that is in here. So let me just add, I think you’ve probably somewhat answered this: If you had one decision-making strategy that you could pass down to the next generation of decision makers, what would it be?
Michael: Whatever you think is the right answer, work hard to disprove it.
Annie: The change room. Everybody should create their own change room. I love that.
I’m going to ask you what book you would recommend for listeners who really want to improve their decision-making. I know Adam Grant is one of the answers for sure, so I’ll answer one, but I’ll give you a second one.
Michael: I’m reading that now. I think the other thing is… I would read Sherlock Holmes. I would read his ability to use deductive reasoning and trying to find the variables to see the non-obvious. How does he go from A, to B to C to D? I think the people that read Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle, or Peter Bevelin, he’s written a bunch of books about decision-making. They’re fascinating books and they use Sherlock Holmes’ kind of a model. I think that Maria Konnikova did the same thing. She just wrote a book about decision-making, Mastermind. But she also wrote another book about decision-making from playing world-class poker, much like you [The Biggest Bluff]. So I think any way that we could take people that use [decision-making] and apply it to our lives. That’s what I would do.
Annie: So obviously, Gridiron Genius is just such an amazing book. [It is] taking this framework of decision-making in football and how we can understand that as a really a good laboratory for understanding decision-making in life, leadership qualities, and what makes somebody excel. You’re actively doing the consulting, the newsletter, the media. So I just have to assume that you aren’t done writing and you have another book in you. So I’d love to hear if you have another book in the works?
Michael: The other book in me… I listened to David Crosby once on television. He was talking about singer songwriters and he said that when you are a young singer songwriter and you get in front of a record label and you give them 15 songs, you spent 20, 23, 24 years of your life working on those songs. It’s your whole life, right? Your true talent comes when you write your next batch of songs. That to me is what’s motivating me to write another book because that [first] book was easy to write in the sense that I was gifted. Not because it was easy for me to write, but it was easy for me to be in that arena humbly around these great leaders.
But my next book I want to take on is… I want to look at the great players and try to break down… because if you enter the Hall of Fame, you’re Annie Duke and you get voted into the Hall of Fame and I’m Michael Lombardi and I get voted in the Hall of Fame. There’s a distinction between the two of us. We both wear a green jacket, we both belong, but in what way do we belong? And not one size fits all. So my next book is going to talk about the game, from the coaching to the players to the media, and how it’s influenced the narrative that’s created some popular myths in the game, and it’s also hurt some players that should belong in the Hall of Fame.
Annie: So I love that because I think it goes along with the theme of what we’ve been talking about, which is: get on the other side of the ball. So this is looking from different perspectives at a similar problem to try to find some amazing lessons. And I assume that’s where you’re going, is to help people become better decision-makers and better leaders and just better at navigating their own paths.
Michael: Right. You know, if you’re a baseball scout… they say there’s four kinds of baseball scouts, right. So just assume… In decision-making we’re basically scouts. We’re gathering information. That’s what scouts do, they gather information. That’s what we do in decision-making. So there’s the poor scout that can’t really gather information, they can’t make a decision. There’s the picker scout, who picks on one thing that’s wrong and just stays with it until the death. That’s Frank Sobotka. And then there’s the production scout that just grades the production, “Oh, this guy did this, this, and this” even though we don’t know how good. And then there’s projection. How do we project this decision further? That’s what we all want to be.
“In decision-making we’re basically scouts. We’re gathering information. That’s what scouts do, they gather information… and then there’s projection. How do we project this decision further?
That’s what we all want to be [doing].” — Michael Lombardi
Annie: Yeah. I’m sure you’ve read Superforecasting, that [says that] really that’s what every decision is, it’s a projection of what the future is going to be, integrating the knowledge of what’s in the present. And if you just stick with understanding what exists today, you’ll miss what exists tomorrow. So I can’t wait, I hope I’ll be able to read an early copy. Maybe I have an in with the author!
Michael: You will. You have an in!
Annie: So for listeners who want to find out more about you, where can they go?
Michael: Well, first I would recommend signing up for The Daily Coach email it’s www.thedailycoach.substack.com. If you just Google “Michael Lombardi and Daily Coach,” it’ll come up. You could read my work on The Athletic, which is a paid website online. That’s a sports page that costs $1 or $2 a month. I write weekly for them now. My podcast, The GM Shuffle. And then I do a betting show. Really, I never bet, but I do a show called The Lombardi Line where it talks about the games and understanding the betting lines and handicap, and who could win and who couldn’t, which is really all about making decisions.
Annie: And forecasting the future, right?
Michael: That’s right. That’s right.
Annie: All right. Well, for listeners interested in following up on anything that Michael and I mentioned today, you can check out the show notes on the Alliance [for Decision Education] site, where you’ll also find a transcript of today’s conversation. So Michael, I feel so grateful that I got this call from somebody so many years ago just lobbing in to say, “Hey, we should really have a conversation because we open our books in exactly the same way!”
Michael: Well, now that we’re all getting shots, we need to get together.
Annie: That is exactly right, because we have not been in the same place at the same time for… I guess it was at a Jeffersonian Dinner for the Alliance [for Decision Education], actually, maybe 15 months ago or so.
Michael:: It was a long time ago. Yeah.
Annie: Well this has been so lovely and I am so grateful that you came on and that we could talk about your amazing work. I am so excited to see the next book that you produce and what everything has in store for you. And thank you so much for being such a great friend to the Alliance.
Michael: Thank you, Annie. Any time.
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