Giants coach Tom Coughlin leads team to Superbowl with tough, adaptable style


To the Superbowl: New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin brings more than just a quiet toughness to his leadership style. (Nick Laham/GETTY IMAGES)

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, however, has never had the same star power. Despite winning the Super Bowl in 2008 and having a .555 winning percentage, he is not a household name. Although he is the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the NFL, he doesn’t grab headlines like his across-town rival Rex Ryan, and he hasn’t reached the sort of guru status Mike Shanahan had before coming to the Washington Redskins. As Will Leitch writes in New York, “Coughlin is a guy in charge of his team, but quietly so. … [he] hides in plain sight.”

What is well known about Tom Coughlin is his disciplined toughness. He is known for letting harsh words fly, being relentlessly critical of his players, and holding them to formidable standards. Coughlin has been called “tyrannical” for his coaching style at his last team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, meticulous enough to earn him the nickname “Technical Tom,” and “about as much fun as an earache.” He gets a lot of attention for his exacting standards for his players: Wear suits when arriving at games, keep the hair cut short and arrive to meetings not just on time, but five minutes early.

But toughness is not what makes Coughlin both the Giants’ secret weapon and its largely unsung leader. Rather, it’s that he’s both adherent enough to his coaching principles that his players know what to expect and yet willing to change when needed. Coughlin’s consistency can come off as harshness, but it means players know where they stand and what they need to do. Strict schedules, rigid rules and high standards aren’t what make a great coach—it’s the fact that sticking to them leaves less room for the sort of interpretation that muddles the team’s goals. "Everybody wants to talk about how rough he is, how unforgiving he is, how the reins are pulled back pretty tight, but playing for him is golden for me," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck told USA Today. "You know exactly what to expect."

It also means he’s not trying to come up with the latest, newest, trick play or coaching tactic that will help him weather the tough times. His aphorisms and leadership secrets are plain and simple: The “mental mantra” that got him through a rough mid-season was simply “staying the course, never saying never.” Encouraging his players and not denying the facts. 

And yet, he knows how to adapt when it matters. He is not so rigid in his style that he can’t see when something isn’t working. After a rough season several years back, Coughlin realized that his harsh coaching tactics weren’t working on some of the Giants’ veteran, talented players. He began delegating. He set up an 11-player “leadership council” to improve communication between coaches and players. He launched one-on-one interviews with players, staff and even journalists to ask how he could improve his approach. He got to know more about his players’ personal lives. As leadership thinker Dov Seidman writes, he shifted from a “coercive or motivational leadership that uses sticks or carrots to extract performance and allegiance out of people to inspirational leadership that inspires commitment and innovation and hope in people.”

All good leaders do this. They stick closely to their principles, make sure people know what’s expected of them, and hold the people who work for them to high standards. But they also know when change is good, and necessary, and recognize when it’s time to adapt the tactics they’ve used for years. Who knows whether or not Tom Coughlin and his team will pull another Super Bowl upset and defeat the favored New England Patriots. But if he does, this unsung coach isn’t likely to take much credit for it.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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