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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Archie Griffin, Two-Time Heisman Trophy Winner

I spoke to Archie Griffin, the only person in the history of college football to win the Heisman Trophy twice, about leadership, mentorship and paying it with forward

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here?

Archie: I think anyone who looks at the success I’ve had in my life—both on the football field and off—would start with my parents. I grew up without a lot of material advantages, but I had one HUGE advantage in having two parents who loved me and helped instill a strong work ethic and desire to succeed in life. It was unusual for someone who looked like me and grew up in my neighborhood to think about college, but my parents preached to all eight of their children that a bright future depended on a college education. I knew my path to college was through athletics—there was no other way—and so my focus became athletics as an avenue for reaching college.

All of my success in life—a pair of Heisman Trophies, an eight-year NFL career, a long career at The Ohio State University in athletics administration and as head of the alumni association—flows from working extremely hard to follow my dream to The Ohio State University.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Archie: I actually had a pretty rough start to my college football career. The very first time I got to touch the ball for The Ohio State University in my very first game, I fumbled it. And you did not do that for Coach Woody Hayes! I thought my college career might be over before it started, and I remember being very discouraged and talking to my Dad about it. He gave me great advice, and told me to keep working hard and more chances would come my way. The very next game we played against North Carolina, I got my chance and didn’t fumble it away! I actually ran for a school-record 239 yards, and my college career was off and running.

I’ve had other setbacks along the way—I had a business venture many years ago that didn’t work out how I wanted—and I would say you probably learn more from the bad days than you do from the good days. When you do fail, and everyone is tested this way at some point, the key is how you handle that failure. I believe that you work hard, do your best, keep your word to people and let the chips fall where they may.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Archie: One quality that is absolutely essential to being an effective leader is never stop learning yourself. Don’t think you have everything figured out, because the reality is you can always learn more. And probably need to! I have also always tried to follow the Golden Rule in my business and personal relationships: Treat people the way that you would want to be treated. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions that people don’t like, but it goes down easier if you have empathy for others.

I have also always tried to really be a good listener. You can learn a lot by listening, and I think it’s a rare quality in today’s world.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Archie: As someone who worked for many years at what I think is the greatest university in the country, I would say that furthering your education can really work for some people. It can give you a new skill set and help you network with people in your field you might have never known. The work I have done on corporate boards like Motorists Mutual of Insurance and Abercrombie & Fitch over the years have also helped me better understand how and why decisions are made at the top levels of the corporate world.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Archie: I always felt like you needed to build a sense of family, a sense of togetherness. Maybe it stems from my time in athletics, but when people know that you care about them they will run through a brick wall for you.

Adam: Who are or were your mentors and how did they shape your personal and professional success?

Archie: I’ve already talked about my parents, and the central role they played in my life. Right after them, I would say my coach Woody Hayes. Woody has been gone many years now, but I still think about him every day of my life. He showed me the importance of caring for other people, and paying forward to the next generation. I can’t even tell you how many evenings I went with him to visit sick kids at Children’s Hospital, and he never wanted any credit for it. We even had a special door we went through so people couldn’t see us coming in. He made paying forward become part of my DNA, and he really cared about his players as people.

Adam: How do you pay it forward?

Archie: I try to pay forward in as many ways as possible. I have my celebrity golf tournament that I do in Florida, we are in our eighth year and have raised about $700,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota. I have the Archie Griffin Scholarship Fund which provides scholarships for Ohio State athletes in Olympic Sports, and my wife and I have a foundation that provides funding for sports, educational and travel activities for young people from central Ohio. I’m also still involved at Ohio State in helping with fundraising events. I love being involved in anything that helps young people dream big and begin to fulfill those dreams.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?

Archie: Well, I love playing golf and there’s no doubt that the course is a great place establishing a better rapport with people. It’s a slow enough game that it lets you get away from your life for a while. I’m not a drinker, but even kicking back in the clubhouse after a round with a Coke can do amazing things in building relationships and getting to know people better.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share

Archie: Go Bucks!

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