Lessons for nonprofit leaders from a pro-football Hall of Famer

Wed, Jul 27, 2011 at 11:25AM

Hardy Smith, Nonprofit Consultant & Speaker

In August, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will enshrine its next class. One of the inductees holds a distinctive place in my life. Les Richter, the famed Los Angeles Ram, was an important mentor of mine when we worked together in the world of NASCAR racing.

The Les Richter approach to any task made him one of college football’s all-time greats and a National Football League legend. He was also one of the key figures who helped transform NASCAR racing from its small regional appeal to the sports and entertainment giant it is today.

As a two-time college All-American, not only was he a gifted athlete and top NFL draft pick, he was also valedictorian of his graduating class at the University of California. Then he became one of professional football’s most feared defensive players.

Stories about Les Richter’s tenacious toughness and competitive nature are legendary. Opposing team’s offensive players who faced him on the field still cringe when his name is mentioned.

And his focused commitment to excel carried over from the football field to the business world. He successfully built a business empire that included real estate, radio stations, television stations, and motorsports interests. His involvement at California’s Riverside Speedway developed into a top leadership role with NASCAR.

My association with Les was the time we worked together on governmental issues affecting the motorsports industry.

Nonprofit leaders who must deliver results despite tackling a growing number of challenges can benefit from the lessons this results-driven superachiever taught me.

Les’s Lessons

When facing any challenge, Les always took time to first map out a strategy.

His plans always benefited from time spent to research the issue at hand, to ensure he had command of any background required.

Then he identified necessary relationships so he could build the support network critical to success.

Although Les could easily have used his football reputation and physical size to intimidate others, he always sought to develop consensus that considered all view points. His willingness to compromise helped convert potential opponents to supporters.

Les’s highly disciplined ability to stay on task was amazing. In fact, Les would be a perfect example of the hedgehog concept illustrated by author Jim Collins in his Good to Great classic.

His dogged determination to advance an idea, reach a goal, or solve a problem was supported by dedication to follow up and attention to detail.

Finally, Les was resolved to always be positive; I never heard him complain about a difficult task or offer excuses for why a job couldn’t be done. A consummate team player, he deflected the spotlight onto others.

Les passed away last summer, so those fortunate enough to have known him will especially miss him while watching the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies next month. He was inspiring.

For those in charge, generating successful results is about personal performance, perseverance, and example. The game plan used by Les Richter is a good one to follow for nonprofit leaders dealing with today’s tough challenges.


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