The Belichick-Brady Way
The New England Patriots…
You might love them. You might hate them. Either way, as a business leader and or an entrepreneur this unyielding dynasty has something to teach you about business and life.
Dominating the NFL for an extraordinary 19 years, the Patriots’ list of accomplishments is awe-inspiring. Eleven Super Bowl berths, ten consecutive division titles and eight consecutive appearances in the conference championship. Also, with Sunday’s sixth Super Bowl win they have tied the Pittsburg Steelers for the most Lombardi Trophies of all time. It is the greatest run in the history of professional sports.
What makes this even more sensational is that they have done it under the challenges of free agency, the salary cap, the impact of social media, collective bargaining restrictions and a growing sense of entitlement among professional athletes.
As people who have dedicated our careers to watching and learning from legendary leaders, here are ten lessons every student of leadership can take away from Belichick and Brady:
1. Stay hungry
Belichick has won six Super Bowls as the Patriot’s head coach and two more as the New York Giants defensive coordinator. With a record of 6-3, Tom Brady has appeared in more Super Bowls than any player. Both Belichick and Brady love the hunt, the intensity and excitement of competition and winning. They haven’t succumbed to the boredom of grinding it out year after year.
Leaders are never more vulnerable to complacency, arrogance, indifference and inflexibility than when they are riding the wave of success. After a string of victories, it can go one of two ways. Players and coaches can lean on yesterday’s headlines and coast a bit or maybe even begin to believe “we’re entitled to win.” Alternatively, the taste of success and the thrill of victory causes them to come back hungrier than before.
Belichick and Brady subscribe to the “no one is paying us today for what we did yesterday” philosophy. The Patriots are always in the hunt. Win or lose in Super Bowl appearances; they always rebound strong. Over the past 14 seasons, the team has averaged 13 wins a season. Not once have they won fewer than ten games.
This begs the questions, “Are you as hungry to succeed as when you first started your career? Are you as hungry to win as when you first launched your company or started in your industry?”
After 19 years, Bill Belichick is still known for being relentless in the pursuit of making his teams better. One of the most tenured coaches in the NFL, he doesn’t get distracted. He doesn’t let the critics influence his strategy. His focus is maniacal. It’s all about the kind of execution that makes his teams better today than they were yesterday and not as good as they will be tomorrow.
What would happen in your business if everyone got one percent better every day? What would happen if you could execute like you were one tenth your size with goals that are ten times your size?
2. Don’t mortgage your future
Competence and credibility build trust, but that has to start somewhere. Robert Kraft bought the Patriots for $172 million in 1994, the same year the NFL’s salary cap (limiting the amount of money a team could spend on players’ salaries) went into effect. Since then, the Patriots have won more Super Bowls than any other team in the NFL.
Kraft needed a coach that understood the long-term economics of running a professional football team. Belichick needed an owner who trusted his grasp of operating a football team and then, gave him the freedom to do so.
Belichick and Kraft are on the same page concerning the business of football. They don’t want to win once or twice; they are in it for the long-haul. Building a steady pipeline of players who get The Patriots’ Way and who are dedicated to playing in a high-performance culture is the key to winning. Winning is the key to expanding your fan base. Expanding your fan base is how you make money.
Before Belichick’s arrival, the Patriots were $10 million over the NFL salary cap. He quickly deployed a system that recruited more affordable players with a makeup—intelligent, tough, coachable, team-first mentality, and strong work ethic—that fit the culture he wanted to create.
3. Don’t be held hostage by talent
Perhaps the hardest, most unpopular thing for any coach to do is to walk the fine line between building relationships with players that enables him or her to know them inside and out and strategically looking at those very same players in financial terms. Few coaches do this well. Belichick does it masterfully.
It’s an almost impossible situation. A franchise wants to reward players who had a significant role in the organization’s success, often with contract extensions. But, those players get more expensive as time takes its toll on their athleticism. To recruit younger, more affordable and more adaptable players, the Patriots are willing to let go of major (but high-priced) veterans.
Most bureaucratic organizations take what we call dead people working and transfer them to another department in an effort to appease them. Yet, what happens is they infect more of the company. High-performance firms that care about keeping their cultures pure rigorously coach people to a higher level. However, if those people can’t cut it, the company is quick to say, “It’s time to move on. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It just means you are no longer a fit here.”
How about your organization? Are your leaders willing to make the tough calls with regard to accountability and performance, or do they shuffle the deck, transferring people from one place to another because they don’t want to do the hard work of replacing people who don’t match up?
4. Return on discipline
The New England Patriots might be the ultimate NFL meritocracy. Under Belichick’s no-nonsense approach players understand that accountability is a big deal. Many have said that playing for him isn’t easy. Belichick’s unwritten, but clear expectations: Don’t be late for meetings. Do your job. Don’t whine about practicing in adverse weather conditions. Be dependable. Keep your word. Prove that you have the desire and the discipline to make the team stronger.
In a world that tends to shun accountability, Belichick looks for players who thrive on it. Often described as demanding but fair, he isn’t afraid to do the hard things. If a Pro Bowl player is toxic in the clubhouse, develops a prima donna attitude or just isn’t getting the job done he’ll swiftly make a change.
Strong cultures honor, respect and enable people by celebrating their gifts and talents, and by giving them very clear roles and responsibilities. Then, they hold people accountable for improving, having a positive impact and doing their jobs.
5. No superstars
When you employ one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, you might think he would get preferential treatment. Not so. Belichick isn’t shy about calling out Brady and hammering him for making mistakes when the team is reviewing game films. Brady owns it. Never beyond reproach and always the team player, Brady acknowledges when he screws up.
In 2009, after marrying supermodel, Gisele Bundchen, Brady spent more time in the limelight. During the next two seasons, the Patriots failed to win a playoff game. Belichick grew concerned that his star quarterback was losing focus, so he called Brady into his office and delivered an ultimatum.
Highly marketable to many other teams, Brady took the criticism and recommitted to digging deeper. After that, the Patriots went 11-15 in the playoffs and made four more trips to the super bowl, winning three more Lombardi Trophies.
Belichick and Brady have both said that their success is closely tied to each other. It is amazing that both men have swallowed their egos and been together for 19 years. The relationship between them sends a powerful message to the rest of the players, “It’s not about you. It’s not about me. No one is bigger than the team.”
6. Be agile and adaptive
Every coach coaches to win. But few do it with the fierce determination Belichick brings to the game. Unafraid to use players in unusual positions and unconventional formations, unconcerned about loyalty and undeterred about what the media, football experts and pundits say, Belichick is all about winning.
While some of his decisions are controversial, Belichick is not afraid to change. He has evolved offensively. He’s constantly adapting to the Patriots’ opponents.
The Patriots recruit players with athletic talent. However, they are also looking for players with the kind of intelligence to roll with Belichick’s constant game-by-game tweaking. If you are changing the game plan each week based on your opponent, you become more agile. If you are shaking it up every week, you get good at adapting.
This approach also keeps the game fresh for players. When your players’ interest is high they stay sharp. Mental stimulation counts, particularly when you’ve played an entire season and fatigue sets in. Also, no game goes precisely according to plan. This requires players who are agile enough to make the right decisions quickly.
Business, like football, is a rapidly changing environment, loaded with uncertainty. Talent wins ball games, but over time, being able to read your competition, shift accordingly and move with speed as a team wins championships.
7. Double down on preparation
What separates Bill Belichick from every other coach in the NFL? Relentless preparation. He treats every game like it is the Super Bowl.
Remember the great line from George C. Scott who played General George Patton in the movie Patton? The famous general read the writings and rigorously studied the strategies of his adversary, Marshal Erwin Rommel, and then used them to defeat him in the Tunisian tank battle. Patton said, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”
Belichick uses game films to show his teams the greatest strengths of their opponents. What do their players do best? How does each player contribute to the success of the team? He expects the same level of preparation from his players. For example, he might ask a linebacker, “Can you name every tight end on the other team and tell me their strengths and weaknesses?”
Breaking it down with meticulous attention to every detail like this enables Belichick to tailor his approach and align his players to compete against the systems used by his opponents.
In business, everyone and everything around you is continually getting better. If you think you know your competition from intelligence gained last year, think again. They’ve changed.
8. Let players think for themselves
If you surround yourself with smart players and then ask them to be puppets or robots, you kill the spirit of the team. The way to be agile and adaptive is to double down on preparation, establish a game plan and then give players the freedom to think for themselves.
Tom Brady’s knowledge of the game and ability to read defenses is deep and broad. He trusts Belichick’s tailor-made approach to each opponent. These two factors give him the latitude to change plays that have a low percentage of success at the line of scrimmage. This kind of autonomy also keeps the Patriots’ opponents guessing and puts them in a reactive posture.
While Belichick expects players to get in line with the Patriots’ way of doing things, he doesn’t encourage “yes-men.” Brady has been known to dissect game plans with a blistering critique and ask his offensive coaches to start over. Even though there is enormous mutual respect, a fiery, passionate Brady has been seen ripping into offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels on the sideline when McDaniels pointed out a huge offensive opportunity Brady missed.
9. Find your team’s unique identity
In the NFL, like MLB and the NBA, every year is different. Players and coaches come and go. This means that one size doesn’t fit all, one size fits one. Every year you have to find that team’s unique identity. What makes them tick? What will create chemistry among this particular group of guys? This is the holy grail of every professional sports team.
Belichick does this as well as anyone. He is a master evaluator of talent. He gets the most out of his players because he has a knack for putting them in positions and situations where they have the greatest chance of success.
10. Chemistry counts.
In our book entitled, Bochy Ball: The Chemistry of Winning and Losing in Baseball, Business and Life, we profiled another great leader, Bruce Bochy, manager of the three-time World Champion San Francisco Giants, who believes chemistry is a differentiator. We defined chemistry this way: “It is a unique bond between teammates, formed by unselfishness, trust and celebration that empowers them to play as one…a psychological and positive emotional bond that unites players who are invested in each other, play full throttle for shared goals, and who achieve more together than they can alone.”
Never one to boast about his incredible achievements, Belichick has created a culture with a selfless ethos. If you can’t choose service over self-interest, you won’t fit into the Patriots’ way. This means you have a team of guys who aren’t concerned about who gets the recognition. They understand that when you win championships, it raises the tide for everyone, everybody looks good.
Belichick also wants his players to strike a balance between taking their jobs seriously and keeping it light. After a game about halfway through the season, the head coach showed his team a video of them being solemn and heavy-hearted. Essentially, he said, “No more. You guys need to loosen up.” You can’t legislate chemistry, but you can hold a mirror up to your players, show them what might not be obvious and then expect them to change.
Chemistry starts with the veterans. At age 41, Brady is the oldest guy on the team by a long shot and one of the oldest in the league. He is 17 years older than Rams quarterback, Jared Goff.
Imagine being a low-round draft choice walking into the Patriots’ clubhouse for the first time. You are almost 20 years younger than your team’s superstar quarterback. A quarterback by the way, who has six Super Bowl wins, is a three-time most valuable player in the NFL and is a household name in the U.S. One of the world’s most recognizable athletes uses four simple words to disarm your nerves, make you feel welcome and close the gaps between age and fame, “Hi. I’m Tom Brady.”
Well, of course, you are. This unassuming introduction says a lot about the man. He considers himself an equal among peers, even though he isn’t. He wants you to be relaxed, knowing that when you feel welcomed, as a legitimate part of the team, the best is more likely to come out of you and your time with the Patriots will be more enjoyable.
It’s easy to agree with catchphrases like “choosing service over self-interest,” but it is harder to put your money where your mouth is. In the world of professional sports, contracts have a lot to do with ego. The more you make, the more you feel valued.
Scott Davis and Cork Gains calculated that Tom Brady has given up at least $60 million over the course of his career through contract extensions and restructured deals that have helped the Patriots make room for other players.
No one is feeling sorry for Tom Brady. He has made approximately $200 million in his NFL career. Had Brady not taken a pay cut to help out the Patriots, he might be the highest-paid player in NFL history. He also might not be wearing six Super Bowl rings.
Before Sunday’s win in Super Bowl LIII, many skeptics wondered if the Patriots’ best days were behind them.
Not yet. The Patriots are still here.
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