Thoughts on Leadership: Leadership Lessons from the Super Bowl

This week my travels found me first in Atlanta, where I got to watch Super Bowl LIII with Chris Stuart, CEO of HSF Affiliates. After Atlanta and a victorious Patriots celebration, I flew to Northern California and finally, I reflect on my week from (somewhat) sunny Southern California, where I’m in alignment sessions, film shoots and meetings.

But let’s return to the East Coast for a while and talk about leadership lessons from the Super Bowl. As you may know, this past Sunday the New England Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl. The franchise is now tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins in the 53-year history of this epic American sporting tradition.

While on paper, the number of wins may be the same, what differentiates these two football franchises is that every Super Bowl win by the Patriots is credited to the same coach and quarterback. Yes, you read that right. Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are the only two constants leading a team that has now made it to nine Super Bowls. This is a record most football followers believe will never be attained again.

And on a side note as a lifelong fan of football, I’ve never seen so many Tom Brady jerseys as I did on Sunday when I scanned the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and its estimated 70,081 Super Bowl attendees. The stadium was a veritable sea of 12s—Brady’s number—and it seemed like every other person was wearing a Brady jersey.

Anyway, back to the game. If real estate is about location, location, location then football’s most lofty achievement in its history is about leadership, leadership, leadership. (A convenient twist for our Thoughts on Leadership series.)

Leaders are often characterized by how well they inspire others, delegate when necessary and also by the examples they set. So, let’s evaluate these two leaders by that criteria.

Belichick is considered by many, if not most, as the greatest NFL coach of all time because of how deftly he delegates. Brady is called by most football aficionados as the greatest quarterback of all time or the G.O.A.T. (“Greatest of All Time.”) His status is due in large part to how well he inspires others and leads by example.

The indispensable quality that is the thread between the achievements of Belichick and Brady is exceptional and unmistakable leadership.

First, let’s consider the quarterback position, which is an assignment that relies on solid leadership. Even though the coach is the ultimate leader of any football team, the quarterback is often likened to a coach on the field.

As New England’s resident coach on the field, Brady leads by example, which is a requirement we’ve identified as necessary for any leader. He possesses legendary calm on the field while in the midst of so-called battle and is impeccably devoted to his fitness and preparedness. He is also renowned for bringing out the best in his teammates, displaying humility and always professing the importance of teamwork. For example, Brady famously took less compensation, giving up an estimated $60 million in his career with discounted contracts, so his team could acquire other players of value.

Brady, however, is an extension of his team’s ultimate leader, his coach. Should Brady not be willing to be a disciple or follower of his coach, then the winning alchemy that is required for repeated championships would be undermined.

For his part, Coach Belichick epitomizes the characteristics of great leaders: He’s an effective communicator and a tireless learner. Coach Belichick was forever influenced by watching his father coach at the United States Naval Academy, one of the world’s greatest citadels for leadership development.

In addition to figuring out how his father dissected the game of football, Belichick is also devoted to studying and learning about the lives of other great leaders throughout history. For instance, Belichick looks to Paul Brown, (the co-founder and first coach of the Cleveland Browns, a team which now sports his name) as a shining example of leadership and excellence.

In addition to a constant penchant for learning, effective communication is another staple of successful leadership. Belichick is renowned for delivering what is arguably the single-most iconic leadership message in all of sports: “Do your job!”

This profoundly simple yet simply profound call-to-action is monumentally resonant because Belichick has first painstakingly educated every member of his team and coaching staff, so each team member understands precisely what “doing your job” entails. Belichick also underscores how it’s not only about doing your job but also understanding how your performance at your job affects the jobs of others. This interplay is critical to the Belichick coaching philosophy. Therefore, his leadership creates both individual and team responsibility and complete clarity.

Belichick and Brady stand at the forefront of the “do your job” mantra. Both are known for their interminable willingness to do their job then figure out how to do their job even better than they did the day before. This requires an unending eagerness to learn and prepare. These qualities—collaboration, accountability, clarity, preparedness, a willingness to learn—create a winning team culture. Everyone knows they must do their job or be gone.

When comparing the scoreboard, other organizations will point to what a great coach or incredible quarterback the Patriots have and say that these two things alone can explain the team’s astonishing success. This rationalization is easy; it’s much simpler to explain away lesser success by attributing it to the overwhelming athleticism or intelligence of player and coach, rather than conceding that the differentiation may very well be due to leadership. While some teams have a single, stand-out leader, the Patriots are blessed with two—Belichick and Brady. Fortuitously for their fervent football fans, they each landed in Foxborough, Massachusetts nineteen years ago and have been leading—and winning—ever since.

So, what’s the message? In the end, it comes down to discipline, teamwork and a profound willingness to do your job. Then, when you do it and win, you must still think about how you can do your job even better tomorrow. James Harrison, two-time Super Bowl champion, former Defensive Player of the Year and former Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker (who played one season with the Patriots and Brady) said it best in a recent Super Bowl LIII interview. (Watch the full interview here.

He recalled that when he first arrived in New England, he wanted to “hate [Tom Brady] when I got there.” He thought the hype surrounding Brady couldn’t possibly be real. Then, he watched him in action and Harrison’s entire opinion shifted. The former Steelers’ linebacker noted that Brady was just as friendly with him as he was with teammates who he’d been playing with for a decade or members of the practice squad. “He’s very consistent and that’s why guys love him,” Harrison said, adding that he’s never seen anyone with Brady’s incredible study habits. In the span of a season, Harrison recognized exactly why Brady finds success year after year, and when asked during the interview if he thought Brady was the greatest quarterback in the history of football, Harrison replied without hesitation, “Best quarterback, no question.”

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