Life & Leadership Lessons from an NFL Great

Pete Carroll inspires John Herdman, and the rest of us, to be excellent.

by Stephen Kukucha

Pete Carroll and John Herdman at the Seattle Seahawks offices

Pete Carroll and John Herdman at the Seattle Seahawks offices

While I have been fortunate to sit at the table with many inspiring leaders throughout my career, 2015 brought a transformative experience when I took part in a meeting between Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll and Soccer Canada’s Women’s National Soccer Team Head Coach John Herdman.

On the heels of last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, Herdman was at the Seahawk’s office to get some practical coaching advice about moving his team forward in anticipation of this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.

Herdman did get some practical coaching tips from the 64-year-old NFL veteran, but as important (for me), I got to witness a discussion about life, leadership and what it takes to be an elite athlete or optimal performer in any walk of life.

Carroll explained that he viewed his role as that of an enabler of optimal performance, by helping position his athletes to show up at the field—whether for a game or practice session—focused, prepared, clear minded and in a position to perform to the best of their abilities. This aligns perfectly with Herdman’s philosophy that all team members must arrive at the pitch “light, bright and clear.” To clarify, if the entire team (players, coaches, trainers etc.) are “light, bright and clear” they will have the highest probability of success.

For athletes to achieve optimal performance, they need to be at their mental, emotional and physical peak, bringing with them clarity of focus that gives them a real shot at excellence. Once again, as always when I spend time with Herdman, I was reminded that the lessons learned on the playing field are often directly applicable to just about every aspect of our lives—including our relationships with our partners, spouses and even business associates. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could show up light, bright and clear every day?

The journey to light, bright and clear is often a different, personal journey for each player and might involve regimes of diet, sleep and routine, meditation, music, family time etc. Whatever allows an athlete to be in the moment and emotionally, physically and mentally prepared.

Carroll also offered up four incremental stages that athletes often undertake on their journey to be an optimal (or transcendent) performer. They are:


You have to accept where you are at, not be in denial about any issues you may face and be open to change before you can grow. This often requires taking a brutally honest inventory of where you are—including your strengths, weaknesses and limitations—and deciding which of these you can address, and which are the constraints you need to work within. Then, you have the courage to embrace who you are and what you can change. To be clear, you can only change the things you can control. For example, if you are Russell Wilson you cannot become Tom Brady—so, you need to be focused on being the best Russell Wilson you can be.


Within the framework of your accepted inventory of strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats, strive to be a reliable player and teammate by holding fast to your philosophy, values and character—regardless of results. This is harder than it sounds, as it requires you to examine your life and make the changes you need to live authentically.


Once you have established yourself as dependable, people (friends, spouse, teammates, co-workers and superiors) will start to trust you and won’t feel the need to micromanage your every move. Because you won’t need as much coaching, you will become freer and more independent.


Achieving acceptance, dependability and independence allows you to move to a state of mental clarity and focus that lets you transcend your limitations and shoot for excellence in every situation.

Like most great leaders I’ve had the opportunity to learn from—and I count John Herdman, Justin Trudeau, Christy Clark and Jean Chretien among those—Carroll lives a life that is congruent with his values and principles. This is what’s given him the confidence to trust his gut.

In Herdman’s case, he knows what it takes to build a winning team and he has his own, inspirational and effective four-corner high performance model that I will write about another time. However, in the search for transcendence at this point in his team’s evolution, John was humble enough to seek advice and guidance to elevate his ability to lead.

I hope Carroll’s advice will equally inspire you to take a shot at being light, bright and clear.

Wazuku Principal Stephen Kukucha is a lawyer, business consultant, political advisor, sports fan and entrepreneur.