Updated: Apr 25, 2022
We do our best to study the attributes and characteristics that make effective leaders, but sometimes I think we miss the mark. Leadership is such a complex phenomena that it takes countless studies, perspectives, and influences to inform our understanding of the necessary traits and characteristics that comprise the most impactful leaders. But we tend to recognize great leaders when we see them. And Tom Brady is one of those individuals.
I'll preface by saying I have never met Tom Brady. But stories about him over the last 20+ years are nonetheless helpful in understanding the type of person and leader he is. It's those stories have helped me understand what makes Tom Brady such a special leader on and off the field.
For those of you who know me personally, you understand my love of football. Having been raised in Wisconsin, Sundays in the fall are an unofficial holiday spent watching our Green Bay Packers. For the last 30 years, we’ve been spoiled with quarterbacks who make plays other fan bases can only dream about. Yet, there’s always off-the-field stuff we’re sorting through as well.
You know what off-the-field stuff Tom Brady has entertained us with? Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.
Current and former players and coaches have nothing but positive things to say about him. Same for his family and seemingly everyone the dude meets. How many times has he talked negatively about his coaches or players? Simply put, he won both on and off the field. Early in his career, this all just made me sick. After every interview, division title, AFC championship, and NFL title, opposing fan bases universally got sick of it...at least I constantly found myself making this face:
I spent the better part of 15 years despising the guy but completed a 180 several years ago, as I accepted the fact my irritation toward him was solely based on his ability to win. No matter the obstacle, talent around him, or opponent, the guy figured out how to win. And as he moves into retirement and we begin reflecting on the GOAT’s career (even if not yet done), three traits of his stand out and are lessons in what it takes to be exceptionally successful as a professional regardless of career field.
He committed himself to the game of football for a quarter century. That commitment didn't just extend to obsessively studying the game. It encompassed changing his daily life and everything he consumed--he literally has a diet plan called the "TB12 Diet". There are stories of people trying to maintain the diet for a week...and failing. He took exceptional care of himself as part of fulfilling his obligations as a leader to his team. Tom simultaneously established a strict daily routine. The regimen was built around consistency and performance improvement. You can read any number of stories about his daily training program and the takeaway is always the same. As a leader, he understood the importance of self-care and controlling what he could control, while refusing to allow distractions or outside influences to dictate his career. While his former teammate, Julian Adelman, has a book titled, "Relentless: A Memoir", it's hard to overlook the role Brady played on Adelman's and his teammates' commitment to the game of football.
He’s emotionally intelligent—
His postgame interviews demonstrate a balance between expressing his feelings and cautiously articulating concerns or frustrations. Emotionally intelligent (EI) people recognize authenticity is important while also understanding that sharing their true feelings about EVERYTHING can be detrimental in the long run. Those with high EI understand what they say and do will be scrutinized and is open to interpretation. It seems hard to imagine Brady's relationship with Coach Belichick has been perfect throughout his time with the Patriots AND the Buccaneers. Reading between the lines, it seems there's been very little communication between the two since he left New England. But that's not because Brady is creating drama. In fact, he avoids the conversation altogether.
When Adam Schefter first reported on Tom's retirement, Brady could have lashed out at the media. Or he could have pleaded with Schefter to keep his mouth shut so he could be the one to make the announcement. Instead, he controlled what he could control. He recognized how he would come across by lashing out. He understood the potential consequences and distractions that would be created if he got into a back and forth with the media. And so Tom did the best thing he could have done. He blocked Schefter from making the announcement for him. Instead, Tom simply denied the report and said he was still making his decision.
Brady's response immediately shut Schefter down (and hurt his credibility as a reporter!)
The very next day, Tom announced his retirement (and then yes, he changed his mind entirely)!
Imagine being a seven-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Super Bowl MVP, most passing yards and most touchdown passes during regular season in NFL history, and being the winningest quarterback of all time. It'd be difficult to keep a level head about yourself. And yet how many times have we heard the story of an awe struck rookie meeting Brady for the first time? Player sees Tom across the room or field. Tom walks over, extends his hand, and says, "Hi. I'm Tom."
Ahhhh yeah, Tom. He knows who you are. Everyone knows who you are.
He maintained that level of humility throughout his career. Even as those super bowl rings made it harder to lift his hand for those introductory handshakes, he never stopped with that simple, effective introduction. And players loved him for it. In fact, they talk at length about how much he cares for his fellow players and coaches. He even put players up when they needed a place to stay. And when (unnamed player) went off on him to the media, he calmly expressed concern for his former teammate and friend's wellbeing.
As developing leaders, we can learn a lot from Tom Brady's career. He committed toward being exceptional at everything related to football, both on and off the field. Over his career, he kept the public's attention on his teammates and coaches while controlling the things in his career he could actually control--his own development and improvement as a player and leader. Most importantly, he never let his ego, money, or status influence his character. The greatest leaders continue to develop themselves, take responsibility for negative outcomes, and deflect attention toward others. As we continuously develop ourselves, we can learn a lot about effective leadership in practice from Tom Brady.
We're in this together.