Ahead of the start of the NFL season, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera sat down with CNN This Morning for a wide-ranging interview on leadership and other topics. Since he took the position in 2020, Rivera has coached the Commanders through a name change, a personal cancer diagnosis and a cultural reckoning for the organization.
Here are his thoughts on leadership which have been lightly edited for clarity:
On what makes a good leader
Poppy Harlow: What does real leadership mean to you?
Ron Rivera: There are so many great examples out there of it, you know, from people like Nelson Mandela. I mean, just listening and reading to the things that he has said and wrote. There’s a lot of great examples. Be the leader that you would follow.
PH: What did Nelson Mandela teach you?
RR: More so than anything else is that you have to set the example. You have to, and then you’ve got to be committed and you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice. You know, I mean, he went to prison because he believed in something. And if you don’t believe in something that, that so much that you’re willing to go to prison, then maybe you’re not a great leader.
PH: You have said that you rely on this mantra: focus on what’s important, not, what’s interesting. Why?
RR: At the end of the day, what’s more important than the people you’re working with? So I like to focus on them. You know, there’s a great saying that says leadership is not about you, but it will start with you. And so, I’ve got to set the example and then I’ve got to follow up on it. And it’s hard to follow up all the time. I mean, every now and then, you got, you try to compromise, you try to work it out. But at the end of the day, you have to stick to your guiding principles.
PH: What about accountability in leadership? Do great leaders point to others when things go wrong or do they look into themselves?
RR: I think great leaders start with themselves. First and foremost, they’re the ones that will stand up and say, “Hey, that’s on me. I’ve got to be better at it.” You know one of the great lessons I learned from Andy Reid [Kansas City Chiefs coach], more so than anything else, is that it always starts with you. From the very beginning, it always starts with you. And then John Madden, who I reached out to and he became a mentor for me, said to me, he said, “Ron, one thing that you’ve got to understand is you can delegate the authority, but if you haven’t set the standard, if you haven’t told your coaches what you want and it’s not what you want, whose fault is that? Yours.”
PH: And that’s what John Madden taught you?
RR: Exactly. It’s that, I have to make sure that I’m crystal clear that this is what I want. And at the end of the day, it’s not. Then that falls back on me first.
PH: What are the three things you tell your players they control in this life?
RR: Oh, they control their attitude, their preparation, their effort. I call it their inner APE: attitude, preparation, effort. To me, first and foremost, the way you approach things, the way you do things, your attitude towards things, it sets the tone for everything else you do. The better prepared you are, the better you are to handle things. And then if you give them great effort, the type of effort it gives you a chance, then you can be successful.
On leading through adversity/negativity
PH: You have been leading this team through so many negative headlines. How have those three things played into really what has been the last few seasons?
RR: It’s been, you know, it’s been hard. But the mantra of pay attention to what’s important, not what’s interesting. For us, the important thing is as professional athletes, is preparation to play the game. You know, got a tremendous amount of respect for all of the things that go on because they are very important social issues, business issues, work issues. But what we do is football. And so, as football players, as a football team, let’s focus in on playing the game. And I always tell them, let me handle the other stuff, the interesting things.
PH: What do you think makes a good team great?
RR: I think having a sustainable winning culture. You know, you look at what Andy Reid has done, you look at what Bill Belichick [New England Patriots coach] has done, you know, guys like Sean Payton [Denver Broncos coach] who have had these long tenures as head coaches that have won championships. You know, Tom Coughlin, what he did in New York, that’s because they built a culture that can sustain the time and you can win, over time with that group of people. And that’s what you strive for. That’s what you work for.
PH: So greatness comes from culture, not just skill?
RR: Absolutely. I think it’s culture. It’s character. It’s a team being more like a family where you can rely on, you can trust on, you can be accountable to. I think you’ve got to create a positive culture that is built through character.
PH: You were brought in by the previous owner, Dan Snyder, and he told you, “I need you to come in here and change the culture in my organization.”
RR: Yes, he did. And let me work at it, and let me do the things that, you know, could hopefully get us going in the right direction. And I think we’re right close to where we need to be.
PH: Can one person, can a coach really change the culture of a whole organization?
RR: Not by himself. I mean, you have to be able to have the right people in place. You have to work with the right people around you. And you also, at the same time, have to make some very difficult decisions, tough decisions and decisions that impact people and families. But at the same time to be able to get to where you want to go, you’ve got to make those decisions and those sacrifices and commitment.
PH: What is the most difficult decision you made trying to change the culture of this organization? You said you have to make difficult decisions that impact players and families. What does that mean? What did you do?
RR: Well, there’s some players that you, you know, you have to let go either because it’s their career is coming to an end or they don’t fit what, what you do, or how you do it. You know, sometimes you got to make coaching changes. And again, those are all things that come back to me because, those are.
On using your platform for good
PH: One thing that I’m struck by is how central to moral issues and social issues professional sports are, particularly football. And you’ve talked about it as being surprising to you, that professional football, for example, has really become the center of so many of these social involved conversations. Why is that surprising to you?
RR: Well, back when I played, it was always initially, it was always about, you know, we stayed out of the limelight. Our focus was playing the game. And I remember when Charles Barkley used to say, and I think, you know, he’s right – you know, we shouldn’t be the one raising your kids.
PH: Well, what do you think now?
RR: It’s interesting because what I’ve learned is, especially when you watch, you know, somebody like a LeBron James step up to the forefront, do what he does and attack the social issues, that to me is impressive. I mean, you know, Megan Rapinoe being somebody that bring attention to so many social issues and made me realize now that I was wrong to think that way because now we have a platform and, if we present the platform properly, we can help – help with change. We can help with making things better or correct. And that’s kind of why I feel, now, is that I have an opportunity to help impact cancer funding and research.
PH: You and especially the players have these platforms. Is it not just an opportunity to speak out on these issues, but is it an obligation?
RR: I think it is. Because we are put on, on a platform giving an opportunity that, that again, we have to be very careful and very diligent with what we’re saying, what we’re doing, you know, because so many people do look at us now.
PH: During the controversy over kneeling, during what I’ll call the NFL’s kneeling-flag controversy, you went and re-read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in the middle of all of that. Why?
RR: So we were going to sign Eric Reid, and he was one of the guys that, in San Francisco, he knelt with Colin Kaepernick. And so, I wanted to make sure I understood. And so, I went back and I re-read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And it’s interesting because the whole idea that, you know, we’re allowed to do certain things, we’re allowed to protest is a God given right as an American, right? And as an American citizen, you’re entitled to those things. So I wanted to understand. And then the more I read and the more I looked at things, the more I begin to realize, that this was not about the flag. This was, they’re not denigrating the flag, or the military, what they were was they were trying to bring attention to bad policing, unfair policing, Injustice.
PH: Did it help you understand your players better?
RR: Yes, it did. It really did. And it made me realize, you know, that, again, if we really are going to be a free society, then we have to truly understand it. I mean, I have no issues with the Second Amendment because of the right to own guns. It is an American right. But I think the concern and thing is let’s make sure we have gun education, gun safety. I mean, let’s, let’s make sure that when we do things, we’re doing things for the right reasons because we truly understand, you know, what our laws are, what our Constitution says we’re entitled to, what the Bill of Rights protects.