The Sports Mentality: Leadership Lessons from the NFL
Former NFL Player and Public Speaker
Former Denver Broncos Captain and All-Pro Linebacker Karl Mecklenburg rose from being a college walk-on and a 12th round draft pick to a pro career that included six Pro Bowl and three Super Bowl appearances. As a highly regarded speaker, Karl tailors his presentations to the needs of the group while teaching and inspiring his audience. His legendary NFL career draws many attendees to events, and the content and delivery of his presentation sends his audience home with a renewed commitment to their goals.
Karl Mecklenburg started playing football when he was ten and wouldn’t stop until he retired at 34. He was a 12th-rounder, the 310th pick of the 1983 NFL draft, leading to a 12-year career with the Broncos.
“I just loved football,” says Karl, “The contact, the preparation, the teamwork, the whole thing was great.”
A torn ligament during training camp would move Karl from nose guard to defensive end, where he’d continue to play throughout his career.
“They’d move me all around, wherever they thought the ball was going. And as a defensive guy, that’s where you want to be.”
To Karl, a great coach can identify what’s needed, as well as the person who has what it takes, and actively put those people in a position where they can help the team more.
Whether you’re a coach or a manager, it’s the same thing.
As the middle linebacker, Karl called the signals and made all the adjustments.
“It was like moving from being on the line to, all of a sudden, being in a leadership position. And it was good for me.”
It wasn’t something Karl expected, but he didn’t expect to get into the NFL, either. To stay for 12 years, when the average is three, is a feat. He attributes his versatility, being someone who takes on whatever challenge, as the way he made himself ‘irreplaceable.’
“Having the courage to try new things would be what stood out for me.”
The second thing is his decisiveness, a component of his ‘sports mentality’- also the name of his podcast.
In A Sports Mentality, Karl chats with athletes, business leaders, and even pilots. He summarizes a ‘sports mentality’ as preparing thoroughly, performing decisively, evaluating honestly, and adjusting accordingly.
No matter what line of work his guests are in, they follow that formula, whether they knew it at the time or not.
Things look very different in the NFL today compared to Karl’s experience: having only two coaches in a 12-year career with one team.
“One of the challenges with football now, especially with the Broncos, is there’s so much change,” Karl explains.
To Karl, knowing what your team members will do ‘without luck’ is imperative, especially if you cover their weaknesses – and if they cover yours, too.
“If you don’t have that connection, it’s difficult.”
When new coaches come in, they bring new talent. When different coaches come in using different strategies, issues arise. These issues compound when it needs to be clarified who you are and your leaders are.
“When you have solid ownership, there’s no question about who’s in charge and making decisions. You can get that consistency.
‘Cause the difference between winning and losing in the NFL isn’t players. It’s mentality. It’s scheme. It’s culture.”
Some changes in football have been for good, though. Through the 18 football-related surgeries Karl had in his career, he only missed seven games.
“You just played with whatever was wrong with you. Unless your backup was better than you in your injured state, and that was it.
Our concussion protocol was, how many fingers?”
When players work so hard to get to the NFL, it is normal for them not to want to get off the field.
But these days, the NFL has changed its culture to promote safety and, ultimately, the longevity of careers.
Karl says they’ve done this primarily through education, which has taken little time.
The message? You’ll have a better chance of helping your team if you care for yourself first.
This message of prioritizing the team comes up throughout our interview with Karl. Whether it’s his best coach or best teammate, the reason he remembers them today has much to do with their ability to lead the team.
Even when things didn’t go their way (like his favorite teammate who lost their position as QB when John Elway came in), the people Karl remembers had the perseverance to put ego aside and do what’s best for the team.
It’s probably why Karl is still leading today.
Director, Strategic Partnerships
Kendyl spent many years in and around the construction industry before joining Assignar in 2020 as a Customer Success Manager. After implementing dozens of strategic enterprise accounts over the years, she quickly rose through the ranks to lead the Customer Success Team for a period in 2022. Currently, Kendyl works with Strategic Partners, helping sell value across complex software ecosystems, ultimately solving the information gap between companies’ field operations and financials-- selling some of our largest deals globally. Kendyl was awarded the 2022 Customer Custodian Award in North America, and she can now be heard as one of our hosts on Assignar’s The Dirty Boots Show. Kendyl enjoys staying active in Colorado outdoors with her pup in her free time.