5 Things You Can Learn from the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders about Leadership

I love reality TV shows, but with one major qualifier.  The contestants must be doing something that involves real skill. Top Chef: cooking. Project Runway: designing and sewing.  Face Off: sculpting, painting and creature design. America’s Got Talent: a bit of everything. And Dallas Cowboys – Making the Team: dance.

For the record, I’m a Patriot’s fan. Haters be haters, but I’m from New England so that’s where my loyalties lie. Move on. Also for the record, I am NOT a cheerleader. Never was, and never will be. I wasn’t even friends with the cheerleaders. But man do I appreciate the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and the Making the Team TV show.

For those of you who have heard this already, you can skip ahead to the list below. But for everyone else… I had a dream several years ago that I was offered a place on the team. I got to wear the uniform (in real life, I should never put on that uniform). I got to take the team picture (it’s a memory that will last forever). And with a hilarious touch of realism, I told the coach that I would work hard on my jump splits because I know that’s my weakness. I wanted to make the team proud.

But beyond the amazing dance routines, the girl-next-door hair and makeup, and the epic jump splits, I truly believe that this show is a shining example of how to create and lead an excellent team. So in the spirit of training camp, here are the 5 things that I have learned from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC, for short) about teamwork and leadership.

1. Expect Excellence

Kelli McGonagill Finglass is the current director of the DCC. She constantly reminds the rookies and the veterans that they are the “premiere cheerleading team in the NFL” and a “team of world-class dancers.”  Setting the expectation of excellence sets the stage for these women to strive to excel.

The same could be said for whatever team you are leading or are a part of. Expecting excellence sets the stage for success.

2. Create a Supportive Environment

The women of this team are encouraged to work together and support one another. Even though each step of the way is highly competitive, the women have to support one another to succeed. If one person on the field dances with lots of mistakes or doesn’t kick high enough, it makes the whole team look sloppy. The team benefits by having its members supporting and learning from one another so that everyone excels.

This is the same in any type of workplace. The team is only as strong as its weakest member. Encouraging the team to work together, learn from each other, and teach each other will improve the team as a whole.

3. Nip Problems in the Bud

DCC leaders Kelly and Judy (Judy Trammell, the head choreographer) “check in” with dancers who are having issues. Being “called into the office” is one of the clearly over-dramatized moments of the show. But, they often do this so that problems can be addressed before they get out of hand. These can be anything from helping someone who is struggling outside of the studio (loss of a job or loved one) or addressing how they aren’t picking up the complicated choreography fast enough. Let’s be honest, this doesn’t always end with a “go get ’em, girl.” At least 10 dancers are told that “this is your last night.” But even in those cases, if the person isn’t ready yet, they are encouraged to try out again the following year.

Imagine how many problems could be fixed at work if the leaders took the time to talk about their employees as people and address issues before they become huge problems. As with the DCC, it won’t always work out, but it can be used as a learning experience for the employee.

4. Set Realistic but Lofty Goals

These dancers need to learn 50 complex dances during the 8 week training camp PLUS the kickline! Not everyone comes into training camp at the same level or experience. But the goals are set at the beginning. Each training camp candidate knows what’s expected of them. They know how hard it will be. But at the same time, they also know how to succeed. Not only that, but they know that they will all succeed together.

Setting goals for your team helps them understand how to succeed. More than that, it provides your team with a shared purpose so they are more likely to work together towards that purpose.

5. Go big or go home

AT&T Stadium is the largest stage in the world for a cheerleader. If nothing else, the stage should inspire them to do their best. The first day of training camp this year, the Cowboy’s owner told them all to “empty your bucket.” In other words, give it your all. How else can you expect to be world-class if you don’t give a world-class effort?

If everyone – from the top to the bottom of an organization – went into work every day and gave it their all, imagine what we could all accomplish!

Wondering what this has to do with science? Very little other than science needs good leaders too. We have laboratory, universities, companies, and institutes that are full of people who need inspiration and direction. 

There’s also an awesome non-profit called Science Cheerleaders, which has over 300 current and former NFL, NBA and college cheerleaders pursuing STEM careers. Their goals are to challenge stereotypes, encourage young women to pursue STEM careers, and get all people involved in citizen science.

You can watch Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team on CMT