If you look into the origin of head coaches in the NFL you’ll find something pretty amazing. There are only a handful of head coaches past from whom all current head coaches come. If you want to get really crazy complex, check out this WSJ article and visualization.
The NFL isn’t unique among sports in this respect. You’ll find a similar phenomenon in college and pro basketball and other sports as well.
This is not the result of rigid rules or imposed design. It’s the spontaneous order that emerges from the demand for certain very hard to identify and cultivate skills. Coaching is incredibly nuanced and you can’t tell who will be good at it from a resume or a few interviews. Those who come up under great coaches and absorb the lessons, gain the trust of players and other coaches, and build a reputation through continued tests of greater and great responsibility end up with head coaching jobs themselves. Then those that coach under them end up with HC jobs, and on and on.
Not all of them succeed of course, but that’s not surprising. What’s suprising is how powerful the network and legacy of a single great coach can be. Today’s NFL is made up of 32 head coaches who are the understudies of just three or four retired HC’s. It’s pretty crazy when you ponder it.
I think there’s something to be learned from this on a personal level. I’ve never seen a great coach in sports who does not spawn many apprentices. I don’t think it’s possible to lead at that level in such a complex organization if you don’t have a cadre of trusted up and comers, many of whom will go on to leadership roles themselves. If you are trying to build something or be truly great at something you’ll need other people.
Look around you. Probe your close personal network. Are the people in it likely to go on to greatness? Will a family tree of leadership spring from your associates?
If not, you might need to do a gut check and ask why. Are you too obsessed with controlling or micromanaging everything? Do you surround yourself with low caliber people? Do you only follow and never lead? Do you demand to take credit for everything, swallowing up all the opportunities for those you work with to grow and possibly surpass you?
I can’t think of a more fulfilling legacy in sports that to not only be a champion at the highest level, but to be the progenitor of generations of champions. I think the same is true outside of sports. It’s a kind of immortality.
You don’t need to live vicariously or obsess over the success or failure of those in your network. It’s got to be a loose, spontaneous thing. But if you’re doing leadership right, you should see other leaders emerge from your circle of influence, and then other leaders emerge from under them.