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Why old-school sports leadership is a natural fit for the new wave of AI startups

Eric Olson — CEO and co-founder of Consensus — takes his cues from the university of legendary coaches.
A collage featuring a man in the center with crossed arms, AI startup leadership play diagrams, and action shots of a football game on a textured background.
Eric Olson / razihusin / Adobe Stock / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Olson makes the case that high-level football can teach the AI startup community golden lessons about leadership and navigating chaos.
  • From control and focus to handling praise and criticism, time-honored football wisdom holds a valuable place the cut-throat AI startup ecosystem.
  • Above all, authenticity is essential for great leadership.

I learned all of my early lessons in leadership on the football field. In high school, I was coached by legendary New England high school football coach John Papas. In college, I was coached by the multi-time Big Ten Coach of the Year Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern University.

There may be a “new-school wave” happening in football today. Coach Fitz and Coach Papas are not that. They are both tremendous leaders in their own right, but both come from the hard-nosed, “punch them in the face” school of coaching that you stereotypically think about from football coaches.  

Today, I run an AI startup called Consensus. It’s basically like Google Scholar + ChatGPT. Our goal is to make it easy to consume and search for peer-reviewed research, so dumb jocks like myself can sound smart in front of our friends. 

We operate in the fastest-moving, most technological-forward industry in the world and are building a product for academics, scientists and doctors. Put simply, we’re about as far-removed from the blue-collar, hard-hat and lunch pail world of high-level football, right?

In some ways, of course. But when it comes to leadership and navigating chaos, I’d argue, counter-intuitively, not at all. 

Here are four lessons in leadership that I learned on the football field that apply in the wild world of artificial intelligence:

#1 Ignore the noise

Famed Alabama football coach Nick Saban once famously called media coverage “rat poison.” To the Alabama football team, ignoring the noise meant not reading your press clippings telling you how awesome you were, allowing the ultimate enemy of the reigning champ to creep in — complacency. 

To the Northwestern football team, many times, it meant the opposite, filtering out the noise of every sports publication across the country picking us to finish last in the Big Ten year in and year out.

The “noise” for an AI startup cuts both ways. One day you will wake up and the internet will tell you that all AI startups are dead because of a new development at OpenAI. The next day you are featured in the Wall Street Journal or Tech Crunch as a hot new AI startup. Well – which one is it? 

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The point here isn’t trying to figure out that question. The point is that the only way these cursory, outside opinions matter is if you — and importantly, your team — believe them to be true. If you believe them to be true, in EITHER direction, you have sealed yourself a fate of failure.

You buy that you are the next big thing? Complacency. Believe that the sky is falling? Well then it might as well be.

It is your job as a leader to keep yourself and the team focused on what is happening inside the walls of your startup or your football team. 

#2 Control what you can control

“Do your job.” 

This simple phrase defined the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL: the New England Patriots. Bill Belichiek repeatedly uttered these words around his team so much that it became the title of his own biography. We all want to do our jobs well, but to me, this phrase means more than that. It means a relentless, maniacal focus on controlling and executing the one thing that you actually have agency over — the task in front of you. 

On every play, every player on the football field has a “job” to do. The second you focus on what the guy next to you is doing, or try to compensate for someone else, or — worse — look at the scoreboard to see how your rival is doing that week, you will fail at your own assignment. If everyone just does what they are asked to do, and nothing more or less, success is likely.

The one single thing that you can control as a startup is the effort and attention that you put in every single day to building a product that solves the problems of your users.

At Northwestern, we had a phrase written on every wall of every room of the football facility: “What is Important Now?” or shortened: “W.I.N.” At Consensus, we see a new competitor pop-up every week. We’ve also been in the middle of a fundraise when the world’s most prominent startup financial institution went under. Do these things matter in the grand scheme of things for Consensus? Maybe, maybe not. But they do not deserve our mental energy and attention because they are not things that we have any control or agency over. They are not “what is important now.” 

The one single thing that you can control as a startup is the effort and attention that you put in every single day to building a product that solves the problems of your users. Nothing more, nothing less. If all you do is put effort toward building a product that solves the problems of your users, success isn’t guaranteed, but it is more likely. 

It is your job as a leader to demand that the cumulative effort of your team is focused on things that are under your control and pushing you toward your goals.

“Do your job.” 

#3 Everybody loves a good story

Every week of a football season has a story. Coaches will get up in front of the team at the start of the week and wax poetic about why this week is the most important week of the season. The best coaches, and the best leaders, use this as an opportunity to story-tell in a way that effectively manages the motivation of their team. 

It can be easy and straightforward in certain situations — maybe you are playing your heated rival from across the state. But other times, the “story” of the week is not as clear. Maybe you just lost a heart-wrenching game, knocking you out of playoff contention. This is where the best leaders rise above the crowd — finding effective ways to motivate their team through story-telling, no matter the circumstance or perceived adversity.

The best leaders are so in touch with their team that they will know the right buttons to push given the variables of the situations. Every week is so important in a football season to the success of your team and it is the job of the leader to convince the team of this same fact. 

A football player is running on the field.
Eric Olson on the field for Northwestern against Stanford in 2015. (Credit: Scott Boehm)

Managing the motivation of your team at a startup is similar. At a startup, you are on the clock. As computer scientist and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham wrote: “startups = growth.” The speed of your execution — and therefore your rate of growth — defines the quality of your startup. This creates the similar week-in, week-out urgency that exists on a high-level football team. Every week truly matters.

Humans are cyclical creatures with waning levels of energy and motivation. It is your job as a leader to try to smash through waning motivation and create a sense of urgency that every week truly matters. The best leaders do this by crafting effective narratives about why we should be particularly excited about delivering a certain feature or meeting a certain deadline. The best narratives are authentic, grounded in truth but crafted in a way that gets people excited.

#4 Authentic leadership is the only leadership

During the pandemic, documentaries about the two most prominent dynasties of recent American professional sports history were released. One covered the 1990’s Chicago Bulls and the other the 2001 to 2020 New England Patriots. Each respective dynasty had a legendary coach at the helm: Bill Belichick for the Patriots and Phil Jackson for the Bulls.

I remember watching each series in close proximity to one another and being absolutely struck by just how different the two leadership styles of the coaches were. Belichick manically oversaw every part of the team, stressing the importance of tiny details in the relentless pursuit of excellence, all while constantly cussing out his players along the way.

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Jackson was quite different. His nickname was the “Zen master” — he focused on how his team was “feeling” and even famously allowed Dennis Rodman to travel to Las Vegas in between games to party because it was “what he needed.” 

How could arguably the greatest two coaches in modern professional sports history be so different? To me the answer is that they shared the single most important trait of a leader: authenticity. Each coach developed a leadership style that was a representation of who they were — and that allowed them to lead authentically. Jackson was a practicing buddhist who has publicly stated an affinity for psychedelic drugs. Belichick was the son of a football coach from the Naval Academy.

Two drastically different people, two drastically different (successful) leadership styles. Famously, every Belichick disciple who went on to become the head coach of a different team has failed (many times in dramatic fashion). I contend this is in part because these coaches tried to unsuccessfully emulate the Belichick model of leadership. 

If there was one single piece of advice I could give aspiring leaders it would be simple: be yourself.

In startups, this is no different. Arguably, the two most prominent founders of American tech companies similarly lack much in common. Steve Jobs was a non-technical founder who was notoriously coarse, ruthless and demanding. Bill Gates was a lovable computer scientist with a technical background.

There is not a one size fits all approach to successful leadership, but there are one size fits all failure modes of leadership. One of the most common ways that leaders fail, regardless of domain, is trying to be somebody they are not. Simply put, people have remarkable BS-detectors when it comes to the leaders that they are frequently interacting with. Coaches talk in front of their team everyday; CEO’s of small startups do the same. If you are not being yourself — or if you are trying to lead in a way that is not conducive to your strengths and to who you are — your team will sniff it out immediately and lose trust.

If there was one single piece of advice I could give aspiring leaders it would be simple: be yourself. Leadership has many different flavors, figure out what you are good at and lean into it. Don’t try to be somebody you are not.

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