Former NFL Coach Daron Roberts Shares the Playbook for Developing Empathetic Leaders

By Gabe Smith,CCXP posted 07-16-2020 11:03 AM


Daron Roberts has a mantra that he preaches to his organizational clients and his social media followers: “Stay in the deep end.”

The connotation is simple—life’s deep end can be scary, but that’s where growth and change happens.

But, as Daron knows, simple to understand does not equal easy to execute—he’s built a career out of sidestepping easy choices in pursuit of harder paths that carried with them greater potential rewards and deeper meaning.

With a personal goal of being the Governor of Texas by the time he reached 40, Daron was on track to reach it—he was student body president of the University of Texas as an undergrad, worked for Senator Joe Lieberman in Washington D.C., got into Harvard Law school and was preparing to become an attorney—when a different opportunity presented itself: football coach.

“A buddy of mine asked me to go with him to a football camp,” he recalls. “I ended up volunteering. It was one of those moments where I realized I didn't have to set my alarm clock to get up. I went back to law school and decided I would write a letter to every team in the NFL in hopes that I would get an internship.”Daron K. Roberts, J.D.

That long-shot hope paid off when Daron heard from Herm Edwards, then Head Coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, who offered him an internship. The opportunity—combined with Daron’s drive--led to full-time coaching roles with the NFL’s Chiefs, Lions, and Browns, along with the Big 12’s West Virginia Mountaineers. After leaving the grind of the coaching world to spend more time with his family, Daron founded the Center for Sports Leadership at the University of Texas.

“We're trying to build more courageous leaders. and a part of our curriculum has always centered around empathy,” he says.

Key Drivers of Empathetic Leadership

Daron recently joined CXPA on LinkedIn Live for a conversation around what it means to develop and demonstrate empathetic leadership—and how organizational leaders can guide their employees through these difficult times of global unrest fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

After helping several senior leaders have what he calls “courageous conversations” about race over the past few weeks, he’s noticed some key drivers of success, and it starts with a willingness to be vulnerable.

"There's nothing like a leader who is willing to come on screen and say 'Listen, I recognize where I've been lacking in this space, but I'm committed to having conversations around this topic to help us become better Americans and better humans,’” he says.

Daron says this is easier said than done, as research shows that over 80% of executives associate vulnerability with weakness.

That’s why he coaches leaders on how to actively listen, a process that consists of small actions that, when done consistently, make a big difference.

"Often, when someone says something to us, the first thing that comes out of our mouth is a declarative statement. We punctuate our responses with periods. I encourage leaders to think of the question mark and the interrogative as their friend," he says, explaining that this creates a shared ownership of the conversation as well as co-created solutions.

Daron also says it’s critical for leaders to learn how to stay out of judgment, calling it “our tendency and our desire to fit things into neat mental cubicles in order to process them.” While it is only human, (“just scroll through Twitter for five minutes and you’re going to see some prime examples”), judgments create a barrier to empathy.

For those willing to take the journey to the deep end, Daron has some final advice.

“I'm a fan of micro wins and starting small. You won't have a leadership overhaul overnight. There's no seven-step, 21-day challenge that will get you there. But integrating these methods consistently can help you become a stronger, empathetic leader.”

To watch the full conversation with Coach Daron, click the video below.

Daron Roberts is on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, and online at