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Editorial: Bill Belichik, leadership icon

Patrick Flannery   

Features Business Intelligence

There’s a guy I’d love to hear talk leadership: Bill Belichick, head coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots. I wonder what he charges?

Belichick comes up because I’ve been watching the Patriots go to their eighth straight AFC Championship game, part of a stretch since Belichick took over the team in 2000 where they’ve won five Super Bowls and appeared in two others. Of course, he’s had some guy named Tom Brady at quarterback over that stretch, but he’s just one man out of 11 on the field at any time. And a lot of those other 10 guys have not been superstars or even Pro Bowl-calibre talent…at least until they get into Belichick’s system and win Super Bowls. While other teams are knocking themselves out to sign high draft picks and field teams loaded with the most athletic players in the game, the Patriots seem to start each season with a bunch of guys named Who, only to achieve the same world-beating results. There are exceptions like Rob Gronkowski, but by and large the Patriots never have a roster that looks good enough on paper to win anything.

How does Belichick do it? I have a theory. I think Belichick has selected for intelligence. I think he’s looked around the league, realized that the actual physical differences between players at this level are small, and chosen players that instead show an ability to understand a system, learn a lot of plays and, perhaps most importantly, focus hard on doing what they are told and executing within their role, no matter what that role is. Tight ends that won’t block are not tolerated. Neither are wide receivers that don’t run out their routes when the play isn’t coming to them. Because his players are smart, Belichick isn’t limited in what he can draw up on the field. As a result, Belichick can draw up a new plan for each opponent.

The key point here is that no other team in the league would contemplate major changes to their offensive playbook – a huge manual that takes players weeks to learn – right before a playoff game. The coach would fear chaos on the field as players run to the wrong spot and don’t know who to block. He would also fear the reaction of star players who specialize in one thing and are now being asked to do something different or perhaps have their role diminished. There is one reason Belichick is able to do this while no one else in the league can. Leadership. Belichick has total control of this team. He is the coach, but also has extensive say in football operations, giving him last say on who the team brings in and who plays on the field. And somehow he is able to communicate to each and every player that it is his way or the highway. Formerly problematic personalities, like Randy Moss, have come into the Patriots system and become model citizens. On the field, his players just don’t seem to do the silly stuff you see all over the rest of the league, like dance around when they are going to be tackled rather than diving for a first down. He’s established the idea that he’s in charge, even with guys that make many times the money he does.

I think there’s a couple takeaways here for your company. Belichick is not the owner of the Patriots – Bob Kraft is. But what Kraft has done is empowered a talented individual to lead. He must have been scratching his head in the early days when Belichick wanted to bring in lighter linemen, shorter receivers and running backs no one had heard of. But he trusted his guy and that trust travelled down the line to the field so players understood where the buck stopped. Then there’s what Belichick did with that trust. He hired personnel and developed his system with an emphasis on flexibility over strength. Responsiveness and attention to detail over flash and raw talent. Considering the Patriots’ success, I think his approach could constitute a new management paradigm.

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