The First Form of Leadership with John Urschel

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In this episode with former NFL offensive lineman, PhD mathematics candidate at MIT, and author John Urschel, we spoke about his football and math careers and how he developed and applied his leadership style. He came to post spring 2020 as part of our Courageous Leader speaker series. 

This podcast is hosted by the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. The Center's mission is to enhance the VMI cadet's citizen-soldier journey with programming that educates, engages, and inspires critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and leader development. For more information about our Center and its programming, please visit Center for Leadership and Ethics

The VMI Leader Journey podcast provides a forum for sharing the leader journey stories and experiences of VMI cadets, alumni, faculty and more plus those from the VIP guests who visit post. During our casual conversation style format, we pose questions to draw out leadership competencies which tie back to the VMI cadet leader journey to share with a broader, national audience. 

This episode touches on the following leader competencies: critical thinking, analysis, motivation, self-understanding, vision, setting the example, and mentoring.



TRANSCRIPT FOR "The First Form of Leadership with John Urschel"

Recorded March 4, 2020


EMILY COLEMAN: Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics’ Leader Journey podcast.

DEREK PINKHAM: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit the Center for Leadership and Ethics and VMI post. We're on this journey with you. Hi, I'm Derek Pinkham.

COLEMAN: And hey, I'm Emily Coleman and we're your hosts of the podcast.

PINKHAM: John Urschel is a former NFL offensive lineman and mathematician currently working on his PhD at MIT. He was the Center's spring 2020 Courageous Leader speaker.

COLEMAN: We spoke to him about his football and math careers, how they create similar leader opportunities and bring him back to his first principle of leadership. We talked about decision-making, motivation, and his book Mind and Matter.

PINKHAM: And without further delay, we give you John Urschel.
John Urschel, thank you for coming. Appreciate it.

COLEMAN: Yeah, thanks for being here.

JOHN URSCHEL: Thank you for having me. 

COLEMAN:  Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself, give us a little bit of background on you. And you know what you're doing now.

URSCHEL: the short story of it is I'm a former NFL offensive lineman, current MIT PhD student in mathematics.

COLEMAN: Wow. I'm intimidated. Okay, well, cool. Um, so our first question is, what was your motivation for pursuing both math and football?

PINKHAM: Right, because it seems incongruous in some way. 


URSCHEL: Yeah. In some ways, but in many ways, I think it's as natural as any two things I should say. 



URSCHEL: Really, it's a it's a simple answer.


URSCHEL: Because Okay, when I was when I was younger, I loved football. My my father played football. So, when I was little, I would see pictures of him playing football. It made me want to play football. And then as far as math goes, I was I was very late to sort of coming to really love math, but I will say that ever since I was little I really enjoyed puzzles and problem-solving and things like that. And so I was good at math, but I didn't necess... it didn't necessarily hook me until I got to university where I have to say it really, it really took off for me like it really became my passion. 



COLEMAN: That's cool. Why do you think that? Is? That over football, I guess?

URSCHEL: Yeah. Well, I would say I really enjoyed football more than math, even though  when I was at Penn State, but I would say my time at MIT really,

COLEMAN: is where you were like...

URSCHEL: gung-ho for football. 


URSCHEL: I have to say doing math at MIT is a dream come true.


URSCHEL: just being able to be around all of these... all these brilliant mathematicians who are, you know, world renowned, and every single week you have people visiting. That's literally the world's most brilliant people visiting to come talk about whatever amazing contributions they've made.


URSCHEL: So, it's just like an amazing environment that really made me appreciate just how beautiful math is.

PINKHAM: That's what we're trying to do with leadership. Bring folks like you here. 

COLEMAN: Yeah. The amazing leadership skills that you guys have. Um, so, did you have any mentors with math and or football?

URSCHEL: I would say yes to both. I mean, I had mentors and you know, they were very much compartmentalized. I would say my math mentor was this mathematician at Penn State. He studied dynamical systems. And he was the first person who really noticed me, who, you know, he had me in class, and he thought, wow, this is strong math student, and he wanted to help me and so he's the person who actually introduced me to mathematical research, okay. And so, he was a big mentor for me, with respect to football, just so many older players at Penn State when I was younger in my career, just showing me how to be a successful football player. Right? It was just a number of people. 

PINKHAM: You can you can look at that now and say, it was their leadership, their mentorship that helped me. Did you think of that then? Or were you just to to, in it

URSCHEL: to in it to notice Yeah, I mean, in football, okay. You know, you notice that you know, older guys help younger guys. 


URSCHEL: the natural thing, but I would say for my for my math professor wasn't until later on that I came to really appreciate what he did for me in the following sense. So this guy, he, he got his PhD from Princeton, he was a professor at Caltech. And he had a two-body problem. And so, Maryland eventually, you know, paid him some money and also help this two-body problem then, Penn State, sort of like outbid Maryland. And that's how he came to be at... 

PINKHAM: I'm assuming two-body problem means a math problem.

URSCHEL: This is something that, like, significantly impacts where people work.

COLEMAN: Oh, interesting

URSCHEL: because you're both academic (i.e., two professors in one family who wish to work at the same institution or at two institutions within a reasonable commute of one another)

COLEMAN: right 

URSCHEL: So, you want to both place at the same university or both places, two universities in the same town

COLEMAN: right 

URSCHEL: And so oftentimes, especially if one of the two of them is much stronger than the other, it can be tough.


URSCHEL: And so it helps when a university they want the big fish, but then they like, Well, you know, they do something for the wife or the husband cases

PINKHAM: Boston is a big College town, so 

URSCHEL: yeah, so my summary Professor, you know, a lot of his movements had to do with the two-body problem, 

COLEMAN: right

URSCHEL: But he was a, you know, very brilliant professor, and he had absolutely nothing to gain from helping me. What am I doing for this guy? I mean, I'm an undergrad. I don't really know that much math,

COLEMAN: right

URSCHEL: There's no benefit to him.

COLEMAN: So, he was very altruistic.

URSCHEL: Yeah, there's absolutely no benefit to the point where, you know, he's spending all this time he's emailing me questions, answering questions I have you spending all this time with me? I eventually write a paper, sort of about the things we've been doing about the things we've been talking about, about the things I've been working on. He doesn't even put his name on it.

COLEMAN: Interesting

URSCHEL: Yeah. I mean, he really just was helping me because he was someone who loved math. 


URSCHEL: And understood the importance of fostering that and other people, 


PINKHAM: Yeah. He just loved teaching, perhaps.

URSCHEL: Yeah. So yeah, that's, that was sort of like one example where I didn't realize until after the fact no, this guy is really doing this. Just to help.

COLEMAN: Do you want to give us a quick synopsis of your book? Mind and Matter?

PINKHAM: Mind and Matter. I was going to say 'over'

URSCHEL: Yeah, Mind and Matter. It's a slight Schrödinger reference. It's a memoir about my life up to a given point and about my experiences with football and my experiences with mathematics and how these things, uh, grew together and how these things shaped me as a person.

COLEMAN: right

PINKHAM: and why was it important for you to write?

URSCHEL: The main reason why I felt important for me to write is, you know, for better or worse, I realized that I'm someone who has a platform, right, who has a microphone, so to speak. And most mathematicians don't get that. And so, I feel I have a responsibility to introduce the concept of being a mathematician, introduced math to a broader audience,


URSCHEL: And so originally, the book was actually much more math-heavy. But Penguin, the publisher actually and rightly, thought that that would do a disservice.


URSCHEL: That you really, we can't talk about one thing without the other.

PINKHAM: Right and they know what they're doing.

URSCHEL: Yeah. And they did know what they were.

PINKHAM: Awesome


COLEMAN: So, you dedicated a whole chapter in your book to decision-making, and when you retired from football to take up math, so can you tell us how that process went for you?

URSCHEL: Yeah, of course, I think I think it's a fundamental. It's a fundamental skill that each of us needs to have the ability to, when faced with a decision, really weigh the pros and cons and really think rigorously about what you want to do for, you know, for an actual good reason, not just because of how you feel on a given day, or some such thing I think that's such a crucial skill. And so, for me, when I retired, it was something where I had to think about this and I was thinking about it for months and months and weighing things, pros and cons. And eventually, just when I thought about it, sort of from a very, very fundamental and like, rigorous point of view, it sort of became actually obvious that, like, trusting that retirement was the right thing because I looked at my life and I thought, well, what are the most important things to me right now? They're math at MIT. And they're raising my daughter. And I thought, wow, okay, I've had a great football career. You know, I got to play at Penn State. I got like, be an offensive lineman in the big 10. I got to play in the NFL. But if football's not one of the two most important things in my life anymore, and in fact, my whole football career, I've had a fairly clean career, like not many injuries, not much of anything. Do I really need to play another year when it's not my biggest priority? And given how, you know, just how serious of a game football is? And I thought, No, this is this is not a good idea. The things I was looking for

PINKHAM: was the process all in your head, or did you do actually start writing it out on the on the blackboard 

URSCHEL: mostly in my head, but talking to friends 


URSCHEL: like I had been talking to friends for most of the offseason just getting opinions and sort of


COLEMAN: Was there any pressure to go one way or the other or was it more just like what makes you happy?

URSCHEL: It was a little bit of pressure on some ends. I mean, for instance, my, my father was, you know, pro football 


URSCHEL: He wanted me to play longer because he wanted me to play my next season. Because after that, I would have the chance to get a big contract. But this wasn't necessarily like this. his reasoning didn't work for me because I already sort of knew that I needed to start to focus on math. And so, it was between playing one more season or not playing at all so the new contract thing didn't really matter to me, but I mean my wife was obviously pro math and things like that.

PINKHAM: Yeah. Pro healthy John

URSCHEL: pro healthy, John. Yeah, I have to say that I am a fairly fairly healthy John.

COLEMAN: Is she a mathematician?

URSCHEL: No, no, she. She's a writer. 

COLEMAN: Oh, Okay. So very cool.


COLEMAN: What unique leadership qualities do you think that math and football have brought you or that you've discovered on your journey, or maybe one brought to you more than the other? 

URSCHEL: I would say football taught me A lot of leadership qualities, I would say, it really taught me sort of the power of leading by example. In football, this is the single strongest form of leadership. 


URSCHEL: The simple act of doing things the right way can have huge effects on the people around you. And really, this should be the first form of leadership


URSCHEL: because any other form, if you aren't doing that first part, this is useless,


URSCHEL: This is this is just lip service. And so, I would say that is the biggest thing. It's not what you say. It's what you do. And when you're doing the right things people notice and okay, conditional on doing that, then there are finer things like just sort of noticing teammates who need help, giving advice to younger players or younger people in whatever endeavor you're in, finding the right way to talk to each specific person because one technique of this is how I handle people. This is how I deal with people doesn't work for everyone. And so it needs to be adaptive. All of this stuff. This is icing on top of the very fundamental principle that the most effective form of leadership and the fundamental form of leadership is doing things the right way.


PINKHAM: Love it

COLEMAN: I think we hear that a lot too.


COLEMAN: Like, if you are going to tell someone how to do something, you should be able to do it too and show them how to do it. 

PINKHAM: So, yeah, and that's certainly in the Corps of Cadets, that's really

COLEMAN: absolutely

PINKHAM: prevalent. So, what is your specialty in math?

URSCHEL: Oh, that's, uh,

PINKHAM: can you give us the dummies version?

COLEMAN: And what do you want to do with that? Like, what do you see yourself doing in the future with that? Do you see yourself - well, you kind of are already later in the math field, but do you see yourself doing something more than that with people?

URSCHEL: So, I see myself becoming an academic. I think I think I want to become a professor. I really enjoy research and I enjoy teaching. And so, I would, this is just something I'm looking forward to. My specialty is sort of applied mathematics


URSCHEL: Sort of using, you know, mathematical techniques to solve problems that relate to the real world, things in real world things. Maybe not necessarily in ways that I can relate to your specific life show, but actual real-world problems, that whether it's engineers or data scientists or computer scientists face

PINKHAM: You like to play chess as well, which I think is fascinating.

URSCHEL: Yeah, I mean, that's strong, because I wouldn't consider myself particularly good at chess. And I wouldn't say I spend that much time on it just because, okay, I spend so much time on the right time with my daughter. I would say chess is sort of very, very low on the totem pole. And if I compare how good I am at chess versus like math or football, it's so it's orders of magnitude. I'm just a casual player. I don't I really don't do much.

PINKHAM: Okay, so it looked like you almost had like master's level numbers 


URSCHEL: Oh, I'm, I'm a strong club player. But I also I haven't played I don't think I've even played like 20 matches either.


PINKHAM: Oh, Okay, okay,

URSCHEL: so, I don't play at all and I, I don't Yeah, I just don't do much

PINKHAM: okay, I thought

URSCHEL: But it's something I enjoy. Yeah, but I just really don't have the time for it. But I think I will say that like, when I do have time for it, maybe, like later in life, I think I will probably become a master

COLEMAN: of chess



URSCHEL: Well, when when I have more time Yeah.

COLEMAN: That is crazy.

URSCHEL: Yeah, I mean a master in the like, the National circuit.  U.S. circuit Grandmaster like the international sort of circuit is I mean it I don't think any I can even think of anyone who sort of achieved that highest level of international


URSCHEL: without starting at a young age 


URSCHEL: which I did not

COLEMAN: When did you start playing chess?

URSCHEL: I mean, I learned how to move the pieces when I was little.


URSCHEL: didn't really like start playing playing until I was in my junior senior year in college. 


URSCHEL: like, that's when I started playing a little bit with friends and stuff

PINKHAM: it's a puzzle though, right?


PINKHAM: Did you look at it like that? 

URSCHEL: Ah, I do. But that's not how you should look at. So this actually.

PINKHAM: You haven't hit on something

URSCHEL: that's actually this hurts me in chess. Because I would say when I play chess, and maybe this is some Another issue is that I don't always enjoy playing chess as much as I do like looking at a position and like analyzing. Because chess in many ways when you're playing a game, you have to be very pragmatic. And a lot of players don't really care about, you know, what's the fundamental truth about this position? They just want to try to make a good move or make it complicated for their opponent or some such thing. And I really, I have a desire to understand a position and that that is not necessarily a good thing.


URSCHEL: As strange as that sounds

PINKHAM: Yeah, no, I think I understand 

COLEMAN: Did you use any of your math skills and football? 

URSCHEL: Oh, oh, I get that question a lot. 

COLEMAN: Do you Okay, I'm sorry. I'm intrigued by like, I don't know just math and applying that to the real world. I wonder if you were like, in your head like,

PINKHAM: It's all Kung Fu. 

COLEMAN: Oh, really?

URSCHEL: I mean, it's definitely natural. That's why good all the time. I mean, I think, like, strong quantitative reasoning might help you with things like learning the playbook. 


URSCHEL: It can help you pre-snap like you can analyze what people are doing and maybe it helps you with like recognition. But once the ball is snapped, I'm not sure it does me any good

COLEMAN: You're not thinking about that 

PINKHAM: that goes on in the weight room 

COLEMAN: Yeah, okay. What would your advice be to somebody struggling in their leadership journey, just taking this all back to leadership and you being a leader in the math field? What would you - whether it's there in the math field and their leadership journey or with with any leadership journey

URSCHEL: and can you define leadership journey for me in a sort of more rigorous way? Like, or maybe through an example

PINKHAM: you're gonna let me do that 

COLEMAN: Yeah, I'm gonna let you do that 

PINKHAM: Sort of leadership is influencing others.


PINKHAM: And your journey with that, I should say, through through your academics, through football, Through through then working on your PhD, having a family, all those things 

COLEMAN: So, the cadets here go through what's called a leader journey. So, they basically start as followers, and then they go into leading their peers, and then 

PINKHAM: leading themselves

COLEMAN: leading themselves, um, then out in the real world leading others and how they got there is kind of, you know, what we try and touch on

URSCHEL: I would say, and this goes back to what I said before, I think the most important thing is if you're struggling on this journey, go back to the fundamentals. Go back to making sure I am doing things correctly, make sure that you're setting a good example. Make sure you're doing this part because often this can be the sort of, at least in my experience, in football and in other regimes. This is often one of the biggest problems that someone faces on what we'll call let's say a leadership journey is that there's someone who has gotten into a position of leadership because of the things they've done the you know, they've done. But somehow they lost that connection to the things that made them a leader in the first place and the fundamental things that they did that set great examples for everyone else. And so when you lose that part, it can be it can be hard for you, it can be hard for others to respect your leadership,

PINKHAM: right sure

COLEMAN: So, what does leadership mean to you? If you could define it?

URSCHEL: Yeah. For me, leadership. First off, it's setting a good example for others. And then secondly, being a mentor to others so that they can improve and do things the right way.


URSCHEL: And I really think of it as this two-step thing.

PINKHAM: Um hmmm. 


PINKHAM: The Center for Leadership and Ethics would like to thank the following: Cadet Caleb Mynus ’20 for the intro and backing music. Find more of his musical stylings on his Instagram page (@mynusofficial), Col. David Gray, USA (ret.), Director of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics, and of course, as always, our podcast guests. Find this podcast and other Center for Leadership and Ethics’ programming information on the VMI Center for Leadership & Ethics’ website, or our try YouTube channel. Follow the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics on Facebook, Twitter,  LinkedIn, and  Instagram accounts. See you next episode of 'The Journey.' Thanks for tuning in! [music fades]

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