Building a Hall of Fame Roster

May 30, 2024
NFL coach Jimmy Johnson knew leadership throughout a team is necessary for success. Here’s how his philosophy can help your shop.

When Jimmy Johnson took over as head coach for the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, he inherited a team that was a long way away from its glory days in the 1970s and was, at that point, one of the worst teams in the NFL.  

Coming off a 3-13 season that prompted the firing of the great Tom Landry, Dallas was a franchise that was just a shell of its former self and one in desperate need of total organizational change.  

Despite the Herculean task ahead of him—and the outside pressure from media and fans that came along with it—Johnson had the Cowboys back in the playoffs a mere three seasons later, with back-to-back Super Bowl wins in his fourth and fifth seasons. 

There’s no doubt Johnson was a great football tactician, and there was also a fair bit of luck along the way (drafting three Hall of Famers in the first round of each of his first three drafts will greatly boost the chances of any football team). However, Johnson’s best skill as a coach was his ability to find and develop strong leaders on his team who could share his vision and help lead his team.  

Johnson knew he needed all 53 men on his team to buy into his leadership to get back to the Super Bowl. And he knew that he needed players, whether that be star quarterback Troy Aikman or workhorse offensive guard John Gesek, to step up as leaders to make sure everyone was performing their best. Johnson also tailored his leadership style to fit the needs of each individual player, helping ensure each man could be his best. 

Each person on a team, whether they play football or repair cars, is going to have a different definition of what makes a great leader, and each is going to need something different to help them reach their full potential. Understanding that and giving each member of your team the support they need will help your shop develop strong talent as well as foster leaders throughout your organization.  

What to Look For 

Johnson has said many times that a key to his success as a head coach was finding players who put the team’s success before their own. Jonathan Ortiz, owner of Foreign Affairs Auto in West Palm Beach, says following the same principle has helped him find and develop leadership talent at his two-shop operation. 

“Somebody that has leadership qualities will find ways to lead, even without a title,” Ortiz says.  
“They're going to show leadership qualities through their efforts and attitudes, trying to get the best out of those around them.” 

Ben Duncan, owner of Duncan's European Automotive in New Hampshire, says the members of his team who turn out to be great leaders first show themselves not only as natural problem solvers but as good teachers as well. 

“We've had a number of employees over the years who have been able to look at a situation with a unique perspective and come up with an alternative solution, and then they're able to share that in a way that the whole team can absorb,” Duncan says. 

Both say there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to identifying that kind of leadership talent—each person is going to be different and will show leadership qualities in many ways. However, both say there are some strategies they use to help identify who could be leader material. 

Ortiz says people don’t start just suddenly showing leadership qualities, and asking people who have previously worked with a candidate during the interview process can often provide crucial insight into how that candidate will perform in your shop.   

“References are really important to us during the interview process,” Ortiz says. “People that have worked with this person can provide really strong insight, and you'll get a really good read to what leadership qualities that person might have.” 

And for people who are already on your team, Duncan says looking to your current team for input can provide great insight when identifying potential leadership talent. His shop has developed a strong culture of open communication, which means his team is encouraged to think outside the box and develop new solutions for problems. That, he says, provides opportunities for leaders to naturally emerge. 

“That's fostered a really good culture of trust within the team,” Duncan says. “Our guys know that they're looking out for each other's best interests and making sure that we're able to stay afloat in this ever-changing industry.” 


Commitment to Training 

During his tenure with the Cowboys, Johnson was a notoriously hard-nosed coach who demanded the best from his players. Whether it was the first day of training camp or coming back from a 13-6 deficit to win Super Bowl XXVIII, he was always looking for his players to stay committed to the fundamentals and give their all on every down. 

Consistent training for technical and leadership skills will help give your future leaders a foundation to build their careers on and allow them to fully unleash their potential every single day. 

Duncan says his shop has a goal of 40 hours of training every year for technicians. On top of that, he also sets aside time and resources for his team to take on management and customer service training opportunities.  

Ortiz says his shop doesn’t have a formal schedule for leadership training. Instead, he and his team identify opportunities for individuals as they come up, tailoring the experience to their specific needs. For example, if someone needs help with their communication skills, they’ll find opportunities to make that person the most effective communicator possible. 

Those opportunities could be anything from an episode of a podcast to attending a conference. Regardless of where or when the learning is happening, Ortiz says there is always a chance to get better and help a future leader develop. 

“Leadership training is always ongoing—there will never be an end to that as we are all on our leadership journey,” Ortiz says. “We're improving through experience and mistakes by the day.” 


Lead By Example 

During a leadership conference in 2017, Johnson told those in attendance that you get the level of performance you tolerate: “If you accept subpar results, then you shouldn't be surprised to get more performance at that same level."

If you want to develop good leaders in your shop, Ortiz says it's best to ask yourself a simple question. 

“What is the example that you're setting? That's what you're going to attract,” he says. “As you yourself grow in your leadership skills, you'll attract higher quality people. Better people are going to want to work for you because of the organization you've built.” 

Ortiz has built his leadership style on the principle of servant leadership. His shop isn’t a top-down ranked organization, and he says there is no task that is too big or too small for any person in the shop to take on.  

“Times have changed, and people don't like working for authoritarian leaders,” he says. “A true leader gets the best out of other people. They grow others through their leadership.” 

Duncan says having regular meetings with your team, as well as being transparent about how your business is performing and where improvements are needed, is crucial in developing trust. Giving your team a chance to step up and take on real problems that your shop is facing not only empowers them, but it also will most likely get you a better solution. 

“Oftentimes, employees are more receptive to an idea being brought forward by their coworker and not their boss,” Duncan says. “That's worked really well for us. When I see that guys are stepping up, I want to keep fostering that and keep that going.” 

Johnson’s ability to develop leaders who put the team before themselves, who were committed to being the best every day, and who led by example is what made him a Hall of Fame coach. And while it probably won’t bring the Lombardi Trophy to your shop, adopting some of his principles will help you develop and retain championship-level leaders on your team. 

About the Author

Noah Brown

Noah Brown is the senior digital editor for 10 Missions Media, where he facilitates multimedia production several of the company's publications.

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