Leadership Lessons I Learned as a Quarterback


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People often ask me what the most valuable lesson I learned during my seven seasons as an NFL quarterback. I’m always hesitant to answer because it’s extremely difficult, impossible in fact, to distill my seven years in the NFL, and the years leading up to it, into one single lesson about leadership. There are too many examples, too many instances in which I had to learn lessons the hard way, often times in situations when a big play, or even the game, was on the line. In high pressure situations, leadership can either shine, or crumble. But, even though my time in the NFL was a whirlwind of playbooks, teammates, coaches, and stadiums there are a few big takeaways that I feel can be applied in leadership positions of all kinds. Here are 5 Leadership Skills I learned as a Quarterback…

The Importance of Inspiration

An important lesson I learned is that no one, linebackers, coaches, employees, or managers, can be pushed into success. No matter how hard you push someone, they have to learn to push themselves in order to be truly successful. That’s the point of inspiration; it’s not forceful and it provides internal drive. Think of the old adage about teaching a man to fish; the same principle applies here. Pushing someone to accomplish a task or to exceed expectations is a way to achieve a short term goal, whereas inspiration is a way to ensure long term success. Remember, inspiration is not a means for you as a leader to get something done. It’s a way for you to help others win.

Diverse skill sets build strong teams

Of course, diverse skill sets are necessary for the success of a football team, but for one reason or another, diversity, as a team strength, is often overlooked in business organizations. Many dysfunctional leaders seem to focus on their own responsibilities first, and then treat other team members’ functions as facets of their own. A true leader thinks about all the moving parts of the team, and in doing so is made aware of the necessity of diverse skill sets and separate responsibilities. Individuals with separate focuses that work together are always more successful than just individuals that all retain a similar focus. Can an organization run with just a sales team? Of course not, just as a football team can’t depend on any one position or player.

True leadership is about authenticity

What does it mean to be an authentic leader? Authenticity, in general, can be a tough thing to pin down, even more so in a leadership position. Inspiration within leadership is important, but it doesn’t matter if it’s hollow. Leading others doesn’t come down to tricks or tips, it comes down to being real and addressing the task at hand. Remember, inspiration does not occur within a vacuum, nor does authenticity. They only occur when there are real world tasks ahead of you, external pressures that challenge you, but to which you’ll respond nobly. Will you crumble, or will you shine when the pressure’s on? That’s authenticity; a noble response in the face of difficult challenges.

Think of the bigger picture, but focus on the task at hand

At the risk of sounding cliche, let me just say that winning isn’t everything. Sometimes when a member of the team becomes stressed or overwhelmed, it’s helpful for them to simply take a step back and adjust their perspective. Focus on the bigger picture. This will help you and those you lead towards maintaining a healthy, productive perspective on projects and challenges. Always remind team members that their job or role doesn’t define who they are, but they help to define the team and its success. Sometimes mundane or tedious tasks can be frustrating, but they’re necessary to eventually win. Every team member is responsible for the overall success of the team, a fact that needs to be reiterated more often.

Winning is great, but helping people win is better

This is something that became truly apparent to me while playing in college, and a point that I try and come to over and over again in my talks. Winning is great, there’s no denying that. But one of the truly greatest aspects of being a leader isn’t winning, or being on a winning team, it’s helping others win. That’s at the heart of leadership, that’s where authenticity comes from. Inspiring others in order to help them win is it’s own reward. It may sound obvious or cliche again, winning isn’t everything. Being an authentic leader means considering the responsibilities of others just as you would your own, and in doing so you can help inspire others to win.

During my time as an NFL quarterback, I saw countless teams that were very disjointed, with different team members assuming leadership positions and players that were thinking only of themselves. Were any of those teams very successful? Not a one, at least not in my book. To be sure, a football team has many built-in leaders, from coaches, to quarterback’s, to linebackers, and beyond. But that doesn’t matter. Leadership isn’t about who gets sole credit for the team’s success, or even who has decision making power. Leadership is about helping others win, plain and simple. If you’re interested in other ways in which you can help others win, feel free to look into some of my other talks. Aside from that, I’m looking forward to my next blog post, although I’m not sure what it’ll be about yet, so stay tuned!

Until then, be well!

-Tom

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