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From defensive lineman to CEO: Lessons from the gridiron

This week kicks off the Division I college football season. This year is particularly special to me because my youngest son will be playing as an offensive lineman at the University of Illinois. I can't help but think about how this experience will shape and prepare him and other players for the future.

Image source: Fred Hall | E+ | Getty Images

Running into a wall of muscle 50 times on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon is not necessarily the same thing as getting an MBA, but the lessons I picked up on the football field, as a defensive lineman for Butler University and at Andrean High School, have helped me be a better leader in business.

Back when I played high school football in Gary, Indiana, the game was not a year-round activity. I knew though that both my team's and my ability to win required that I lead by example — staying committed to the game, even off the field.

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I took every off-season as a challenge to get better and stronger. I wrestled. I did wind sprints on the beach. I even got my younger brother to sit behind the wheel of our 1970 LTD and steer in neutral while I pushed the car around the block.

When the season began, it was clear that my work paid off. I could handle any situation both mentally and physically. I was able to react quickly, help my teammates navigate plays and put our team in a top position within our state. To this day, I am honored and humbled that my high school teammates recognized my dedication by appointing me team captain.

This commitment carried over to Butler. During summers, I worked full days in the warehouse of my father's pharmaceutical business, followed by hours of intense workouts doing agility exercises, running and weight training — all in preparation for the college football season where multi-practice days and everyday meetings were the norm.

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This is a lesson that I think applies equally to the business world, where preparation is essential to success. I cannot tell you how often I have worked on a team where we have faced something we did not expect. A client raised the intensity of an assignment. A competitor came in with a strong proposal. A key member of our team had to step away to handle a family emergency.

In each situation, the ability to lead your team depends on how well you have prepared and whether you have trained yourself to isolate the most important information, make decisions quickly and act decisively.

In football, that takes dedication, conditioning and repetition. Wind sprints on the beach or laps around the block, while pushing a two-ton piece of steel on wheels. In the business world, it takes constant attention to detail, training and trusting your top leaders and most of all, a focus on getting everyone behind a common goal.

I saw this firsthand when I worked as a tax partner at Arthur Andersen, formerly one of the biggest accounting firms in the world. As the firm was about to go out of business, there were a lot of choices that partners and practitioners alike had to make about the future of their careers.

I saw that we could be more successful finding a new firm to call home if we stuck together and negotiated as one tax practice. We had 2,000 people firm-wide and nearly 700 people in Chicago. With such a large team, it was not always easy to keep everyone on the same course. By rallying leadership behind a common goal and building consensus among our team, we were effective in moving the entire group to a new organization.

Once my team joined Deloitte, I brought in one of the best football coaches out there to talk to us — Herman Boone, the coach portrayed by Denzel Washington in "Remember the Titans." Coach Boone delivered a simple message to us: "Win together, or lose apart." He helped us understand what it took to bring two teams and cultures together. For three consecutive years after that, we surpassed our own internal goals by taking advantage of the diverse skill sets and caliber of talent across our team.

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Now as the chairman and chief executive officer of Deloitte Tax in the U.S., I work with a team of 10,000 people where teamwork is critical. Everyone has to be good at what they do, but even more importantly, we have to rely on our colleagues, prepare for any possibility and react quickly and effectively even when things do not break our way.

While athletes bring a lot to the table in terms of work ethic, teaming and other skills, I value the background and experience all of my team members bring to Deloitte Tax, whether they played a sport or not. At the end of the day, it is all about working cohesively as a team toward a shared goal.

As I see my son Nicky go from playing as a high school All-American to Division I football, I am eager to see what skills he learns and how he uses them throughout his career and life — both on and off the field. I am confident that whatever challenges he faces on Saturday afternoons this fall, he too will develop the skills needed to be a successful leader.

Commentary by Carl Allegretti, chairman and chief executive officer, Deloitte Tax LLP.

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