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Why You Need to Ask Yourself Lou Holtz’s Three Rules and Four Questions


By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute

As most people did in 2020, my wife and I spent some time channel surfing in a quest for interesting viewing. We stumbled upon a documentary about the famous football coach and broadcaster Lou Holtz. The documentary discussed his unique philosophy on life, specifically, three rules and three questions. Buried towards the end was a fourth question, one that is simultaneously incredibly insightful and quite jarring. 

Here are Holtz's three rules:

Rule One: Just do the right thing. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Most of us instinctively know right from wrong in our hearts, and if you reflect on the times when you’ve made a blunder, upon analysis, you probably recognize that you were taking a short cut or moving in a direction inconsistent with your values. Life is filled with decisions small and large: little things like what to wear, what to eat, and when to mow the lawn, as well as momentous things like where to work, where to live, and whom to marry. Life is nothing more, if you really think about it, than the sum total of all the decisions that you make over long periods of time, and every one of those decisions has an impact on your direction. Holtz advises: “Do the right thing.” 

Rule Two: Do everything to the best of your ability in the allotted time. Everyone's parents told them to do their best; that’s kind of a given. What Holtz added that makes this concept relatable is doing your best in the time allotted. In the construction business, time is always tight, so you've got to not only do the best you can, but you've got to do it within a rigidly defined schedule. That’s where Holtz adds genius; do your best and do it according to schedule. 

Rule Three: Show your people that you care. Johnny Unitas was the Tom Brady of the NFL in the 1960s, and, in reading his biography, I discovered that he was not just a great quarterback, he was a great leader. In the immense pressure of an NFL game where the clock literally ticks off the seconds one has to perform, Unitas would come to the huddle and ask, “What do you need?" He didn’t bark the next play and give orders like the stereotypical field general. He asked his teammates how he could help them! Even in the heat of battle, he showed his people that he cared. 

Here are Hotz's three questions:

Question One: Can I trust you? When I was a young man about to get married, a mentor told me that the most important ingredient contributing to a successful marriage is commitment. Trust is hard to win and is very easily lost. Committed people inspire and deserve trust. People who fail to demonstrate commitment... well, not so much. 

Question Two: Are you committed to excellence? Most contractors are eager to proclaim their commitment to excellence, but how do they measure it? Do they have standards, mileposts, KPIs, targets, and goals so they can measure performance? If you’re committed to excellence, you should be able to measure progress against a standard. 

Question Three: Do you care about me? For most contractors who don’t need much in the way of praise or emotional support, this may seem like a foolish sentiment. It’s not. Today’s workers want to see real effort on the parts of their senior leaders and companies to demonstrate employee care and concern. If you’re not comfortable with showing caring and what many deride as “warm fuzzies,” find people on your team who are and have them lead the charge. 

Holtz's final question is intended for the purpose of meaningful introspection. Who would miss you if you didn’t show up, and why? What a great question! How would you answer this one?