Mental toughness at your startup

Bill Belichek is one of the most successful American football coaches of all time.  After helping the New York Giants win two Superbowls as an assistant coach, he led the New England Patriots to three more Superbowl victories (along with two other appearances in the big game).

Along the way, Belichek has become famous for his systematic, hard-nosed approach to coaching football, including a willingess to cut or trade high-priced veterans when he no longer felt that they were worth their salary.

That’s why it’s interesting that he focuses on mental toughness and togetherness as the source of his success:

“We use the term ‘mental toughness’ a lot, and to me that term means doing the right thing for the team when things aren’t right for you — maybe a guy that’s not getting the playing time he hoped for, maybe he isn’t getting as many opportunities to do whatever it is he’d like to do. We all have to give up a little bit of something in this sport, and mental toughness is going out there and doing what’s best for the team even though everything isn’t going exactly the way you want it to. The way we try to handle that, or manage it, is that your individual performance is critical for us to win, and your mental toughness is doing what’s best for the team in every situation. So being solid and doing your job, and if you’re prepared and everybody around you knows that you are prepared and they can count on you, and you’re dependable to go out and do your job, then it makes it a lot easier for the person beside you to go out and do theirs.”

There are some interesting lessons for the startup world.  Belichek asks his players to sacrifice their own individual desires for the good of the team–despite the fact that he makes no bones about his lack of sentimentality and traditional “loyalty”.  In the startup world, entrepreneurs face a similar challenge–how do you get people to sacrifice when they have so many other opportunities?

Belichek’s answer is to focus on team achievement.  His message is that individual sacrifice leads to greater team success–a tradeoff that is credible because of his 5 Superbowl rings.

If your startup is killing it, its employees can expect to benefit (think of the credibility we still grant to ex-Googlers, even though most of them joined the company much later, and played little role in its initial success).  If your startup is failing, asking for loyalty and self-sacrifice is a fool’s errand.

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