In the Super Bowl Era, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. During this time, the team won a league-leading six Super Bowl wins. It was the coaches’ ability to deliver results that kept them employed. To illustrate why low turnover is important, the New York Jets have had eighteen head coaches between 1967 and the present and they could only muster a single Super Bowl title in that timespan.

The three coaches for the Steelers have received numerous accolades, including Hall of Fame enshrinements for the former two, and Mike Tomlin is on track to being a Hall of Famer himself. So what makes Tomlin a successful coach? His conduct is one of the tools he leverages to take command in the situations he encounters throughout the year.

NFL teams are allowed to have 90 players on their active roster during the offseason, but that number has to be cut to 53 before the regular season begins. Nearly half of the roster is released, and this event is particularly devastating to younger players who fear their dreams of playing as a pro athlete are over. Bob Labriola interviewed Mike Tomlin on how he conducts roster cuts, an excerpt of which is available on a recent Steelers Asked and Anwsered column:

Does Coach Mike Tomlin meet individually with the players who are released? Or does some of this fall to the assistant coaches?

ANSWER: I did an interview with Coach Mike Tomlin a few years ago, and the topic of cut-down day was one of the topics he discussed. Here is a portion of that interview as it pertains to your question:

Q. What is cut-down day like for you?

A. It’s not a good day. It’s the worst day of the year, quite frankly. But in another way, it’s an exciting day because you have great clarity in terms of who the initial 53 are going to be and you’re starting to work with a smaller number of men and really focusing on the challenges that lie ahead. But at the same time, you’re informing some men that they didn’t do what they desired to do, what you watched them work for over the course of a number of months. This is not like a lot of jobs. What’s required from an effort standpoint, from a commitment standpoint, even to have an opportunity be at the doorstep, is special. It’s a tough day when you have to inform somebody his journey is over.

Q. How do you handle your end of that conversation?

A. Usually what I do is I give them black-and-white information as I see it, what I believe led to the decision. Then I get a feel from them what direction we go. If they need further information to determine what their next step in football or in life is, I’m there to answer that. If there’s some disagreement in terms of my decision-making to a degree, I’m there to discuss and talk about that. If they want to get out of the room and move on, I’m open to that. After I say what it is I feel needs to be said, get them the information I believe they deserve, I really get my feel from them in terms of where we go from there.

Coach Tomlin exemplifies strong leadership in the following ways:

  • He takes on the responsibility of handling a delicate situation. By encountering a player directly, he assumes ownership over the decision to cut that player. More importantly, the coach puts himself in a vulnerable spot. Mike Tomlin loses his ability to pass blame on to the general manager, an assistant coach, or another player.
  • He establishes the rules of engagement. By speaking first, Tomlin is able accomplish his objective (explain why the cut was made) without the other party disrupting the conversation.
  • He opens the floor once his mission is complete. Once the news is delivered, the player can express his feelings on the decision. The player is allowed to disagree, but ultimately the decision cannot be undone. Tomlin, however, can clarify certain points, provide advice on next steps, or simply let the player walk.

Firing a team member is always a difficult experience, but it can be an easier experience for everyone if you execute it these ideas in mind. Confront the decision head on and stay firm with the decision, but remain empathetic and offer your assistance with the transition.