Skip to main content

High performance, excellence and accountability

Australian rules football coach Ross Lyon’s lessons of leadership

two people talking in front of a group of people

At right: Ross Lyon and Gretchen Buhlig

October 30, 2017

When Gretchen Buhlig was named chief executive officer of the Arizona State University Foundation, the non-profit that generated a record $220 million last year as part of Campaign ASU 2020, she committed to developing her staff’s leadership abilities.

As part of that pledge, Buhlig invited former Australian Football League player and head coach of its Fremantle Football Club Ross Lyon to share wisdom with a different kind of team: development officers at the ASU Foundation.

“A lot of what Ross says is relatable to our work,” Buhlig said. She and Lyon met at the Harvard Business School’s Authentic Leader Development course, where they recognized overlap in their diverse professions.

Here, Lyon shares his lessons of leadership, which apply on and off the field — no matter the discipline.

1. “Fixed mindsets are dangerous.”

Lyon’s players, like ASU students, are from varied backgrounds. He encourages them to define themselves not by genetics, but by a “growth mindset” in which they believe their talents can be developed — or, as ASU President Michael M. Crow says, that one is capable of learning anything, anywhere, at any time.

2. “By definition, anything is possible.”

Results are just feedback, according to Lyon. He utilizes feedback to drive possibility and, in turn, define actions that create change. If one is honest about how his or her actions align with goals and adjusts accordingly, possibility is brought to life.

3. “Be clear on why you do things.”

When it gets tough — on the field, in fundraising or in life — Lyon says that if we are clear on the purpose of what we are trying to achieve, stress and anxiety can transform into perseverance and action.

4. “Education is key.”

Based on what he’s seen at ASU, Lyon hopes to add to the player development staff at his club. He lauded the university as a vibrant, caring, warm and welcoming place with strong accountability and respect. Traits that, along with education, give one a purpose off the field — and improve performance on it. “What does your 45 year-old self look like?” he asks. “I don’t want to produce tragedies.” Instead, he aims to help his player build a life off the field that will sustain them beyond their football careers.

5. “If you don’t see possibility in people, they’ll know it.”

As the head coach of elite athletes, Lyon sees part of his job as recognizing potential and using it to inspire the individual who holds it. Though he is fierce on accountability, he challenges behavior while supporting his people.

6. “The mental bucket’s got lots of space.”

Three times a week, Lyon’s team participates in activities to help them visualize completion of specific tasks, like going all-out for a ball or a tackle. Imagery and meditation are compulsory for his team, whom he hopes to equip with skills to “declutter.” At ASU, Chief Well-Being Officer and Dean Teri Pipe leads the donor-supported Center for Mindfulness to teach the university community how to improve engagement and performance through mental centering.

7. “Everything’s created twice: mentally first, and then it’s linked to the physical world.”

Lyon recommends Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” to help leaders balance that duality.

8. “Everyone wants to belong to something.”

ASU has a lot of opportunity to belong, he says. Impressed by alumni who give back, especially those who embrace that all support matters and are part of the 92 percent of donors whose gifts are less than $100, Lyon intends to make his own gift to ASU.

9. “It starts at the top.”

How one is as a leader, Lyon says, is how one’s organization will act. He wants to model a behavior of continual improvement because better coaches produce better players. Every three weeks, Lyon encourages his staff to provide anonymous feedback, saying, “I have to act on it.”