3 Leadership Lessons That All CEOs Can Learn from Notre Dame Icon Rudy Ruettiger

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ceo leadership lessons from rudy ruettiger

“Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!”


Daniel Eugene Ruettiger, aka the famous “Rudy” Ruettiger, started as a nobody but rose to become one of the most famous and inspiring athletes in sports history. Ruettiger faced mountains of obstacles on his path to success – and yet, that’s part of the reason so many leaders look up to him today.

How did one man go from losing his lifelong dream to having his name chanted in the stands by thousands and being carried on his teammates’ shoulders?

What can we learn from the man who started at the bottom, then wound up with a popular film produced about his life story?  Are you a leader inspiring those around you to risk their own positions to support and follow you?

Today, I want to talk to you about what CEOs and other leaders can learn from Rudy Ruettiger, the sports icon. So let’s dive a little into his trials and success – as well as the leadership lessons we can take with us.

The Story of Rudy Ruettiger

Rudy Ruettiger Early Life

Photo courtesy of the university of notre dame

Early Life

Born in 1948, Rudy started on a lower level than many athletes – quite literally. He was short for his age throughout childhood, and he never grew to be as tall as most of his counterparts in adulthood.

Although he dreamed of becoming a famous football player, the odds were stacked against him – both physically and mentally. He had dyslexia (which wasn’t diagnosed until later in life), and he consistently struggled to perform well in academic settings.

He aspired to attend Notre Dame, but he was rejected after applying to high school due to his low grades. This was a devastating rejection.

Young Adulthood

After his first Notre Dame rejection, Ruettiger went on to work in the Navy for two years, followed by a job at a power plant. Unfortunately, he experienced another devastating loss in his life here – his friend (and coworker) passed away in a tragic accident.

After that, Ruettiger realized that life is short and fragile. If he wanted to pursue a dream, he needed to make it happen himself – regardless of the hurdles that lay in front of him.

Achieving Success

Soon after his friend’s death, Rudy quit his job at the power plant and applied to Notre Dame once more. He was rejected twice – two more bullets in an already wounded heart. Still, he didn’t give up. He enrolled and attended the nearby Holy Cross College, and after two years of studying there, he was finally accepted into Notre Dame in 1974.

In all, it took him four attempts to make it into the school of his dreams at the age of 26.

Ruettiger’s dream didn’t stop there. He was determined to play for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, despite his small stature. His coach allowed him to become a “walk-on” player, and although no one expected much from him, he expected a great deal of himself.

Fast forward to 1975: this is the moment we remember from the 1993 film Rudy. Then, Ruettiger had the opportunity to play in his first official game as a member of the Fighting Irish team.

Ruettiger faced challenge after challenge on his road to success, but in the end, his story became one of inspiration – not defeat.

CEOs and other leaders can learn from success stories like Rudy’s. So let’s examine three of the B-I-G leadership lessons we can all take from Rudy Ruettiger’s moving story.

1) Don’t Believe Everything Other People Say

“How can you even afford to go to college?”

“Aren’t you a little short to play college football?”

“Do you think maybe it’s time you just gave up?”


Rudy Ruettiger Notre Dame Football

Courtesy of tema fantástico, sociedad


You can bet that these are the kinds of statements Rudy Ruettiger heard throughout his life, up until he fulfilled his dream of playing for Notre Dame. He has openly stated that he believes we all have people in our lives who appear to be our friends but who actually think we’re full of you-know-what.

He references the false statements of others frequently in his motivational speeches and events. Ruettiger openly admits that if he were to have given into the doubts and negatives of others, he would never have made his historic debut on the field in 1975.

It doesn’t matter what kind of CEO you are. There will always be naysayers and people with ulterior agendas. But, like Rudy, you’ll need to learn to pick and choose the advice you listen to.

This doesn’t mean you are always right and should ignore the advice of others. However, it would help if you reflected on how you’re balancing the two. Even Ruettiger’s coaches had negative opinions, and yet this athlete persevered through it all. He learned how to listen, but at the same time, make his own decisions.

How are you weighing the praise of those who believe in you in comparison to the negativity of those who whisper behind your back?


2) You Can Thrive on the Skepticism of Others

“Never quit, don’t ever, ever quit. Recognize that stopping now, regrouping to try a new approach isn’t quitting. If you quit, you’ll regret it forever.”


Thrive On Skeptism Rudy Ruettiger

Photo courtesy of rudyruettiger. Com

That’s a Ruettiger quote that’s gone down in history – but it was also a concept that the football player worked hard to learn throughout his life.

Many of Rudy’s family, friends, and past educators were skeptical of Rudy’s dream of attending Notre Dame and playing for their football team. You can bet that he was encouraged to give up on his path – to accept his height, his poor grades, his rejections. The fear of failure was ever-present in his life.

Instead of giving in to these skepticisms, Ruettiger took another path: he used them.

He once said, “Where we start in life doesn’t define who we will become.” He knew how much people doubted him and what was holding him back, and yet, he used those as incentives to grow and pursue his dream rather than give it up.

Whether you’re the Chief Officer of a huge company or a small business leader, you will face skeptics with serious doubts about your skills and dreams. Will you let those hold you back – or will you take Rudy’s approach and use them as fuel for your fire?


3) Personality Is Always a Selling Point

Personality Always A Selling Point Rudy Of Notre Dame

Photo courtesy of rudyruettiger. Com

Rudy Ruettiger has rarely been described as “likable.” Abrasive? Yes. Relentless? Absolutely. But not likable.

Ironically, that’s part of what we all love so much about this underdog athlete. As one ESPN article stated, this former walk-on could “provoke eye-rolls one minute but then inspire others to run through a wall for him the next.”

This tells us something incredibly important about being a leader: the goal is not always to pacify or earn your comrades’ love and approval. Instead, the key is to focus on inspiring others to follow you and carry you off the field in celebration of great success!

Sometimes, like Rudy, you have to stick to your guns and be who you’re born to be. Success will come as a result.

If you’re a CEO or another kind of business leader, ask yourself: Are you exuding an authentic personality? Or are you portraying traits that you think others expect to see from a successful leader?

We could all benefit from taking a page from Ruettiger’s book. While being abrasive is not necessarily a trait to emulate, perseverance through both difficult and great times is something we could all use.

In Conclusion

You may not care about football, athletes, or the film Rudy – but it doesn’t matter. Ruettiger’s story, its value, and challenges ring true for so many leaders. Highly successful CEOs have looked at their odds and said, “I think I can beat those.”

However, it takes time and assistance to cultivate the skills that Ruettiger has. Learning to ignore the false statements of others, overcome doubts, and use our personality to our advantage takes patience – and lots of practice.

That’s where executive coaching comes into play. At Strategy People Culture, we help underdogs, and growing CEOs understand where their weaknesses lie – as well as how they can transform them into strengths.

Your story is only beginning to unfold. Let us help you achieve new goals and cultivate a dedication as strong as Ruettiger’s and beyond. For more information, contact me online or send our team a message at info@StrategyPeopleCulture.com. You can also call 833-ROCK-SPC today.

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Andy Botwin

Andy is a seasoned executive & leadership coach, independent workplace investigator, and trainer with more than 25 years of experience working with companies across various levels. He was Chief Human Resources Officer for a 1500+ person professional services firm and a Principal & Chief Human Resources Officer for a top national professional services firm where he drove culture change in the organization culminating in recognition on Fortune Magazine’s prestigious 100 Great Places to Work in America.