12 Leadership Lessons from Tom Brady’s Career

February 25, 2021

How Authentic Connection Creates Better People and Leaders

Prior to Super Bowl LV, Saturday Night Live aired a fun skit detailing how nothing works in the U.S. – the government, stock market, social networks, vaccine distribution, and more. But what they did say “works all the time” is Tom Brady. You can count on him to win! And he did the very next night, leading his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Published before the 2020-21 football season, Kevin Daum and Anne Mary Ciminelli distilled Brady’s successful career into a well-written insider book entitled, 12 Lessons in Business Leadership: Insights From the Championship Career of Tom Brady. The authors state that they haven’t created a tribute to Brady, but an extraction and catalogue of the leadership insights gleaned from his behavior on and off the field.

In this article, I want to focus on Leadership Lesson 12: “Live the Image.” Brady continues to inspire those around him, regardless of public opinion and scrutiny. The fact that he can lead at such a high level while under today’s increasingly critical media spotlight in and of itself may reveal a key aspect of his success.

The Search for Effective Leaders

In his forward to this book, Jack Daly wrote:

“There’s a common myth that leaders are born, not made, but I disagree. In my experience, the best leaders are the ones who commit to a process. They dial in on a vision, establish the rigor of systems and processes, practice relentlessly, and operate in a culture of discipline. Effective leaders stay committed to what is important and enjoy consistent success."

All too often we get distracted from our core business principles and long-preparation by the immediate urgencies of the day. Stephen Covey refers to this as “Everything is Important and Urgent.” If you live in this quadrant much of the time, you are not a leader, and your business probably isn’t successful.

Now more than ever, companies demand increased productivity and leadership from their employees. Modern technology has created some efficiencies and made advanced soft skills a nice idea, but technology doesn’t inherently make better leaders. Moreover, there are few good bosses with the time and constructive knowledge to guide the way for up-and-comers. Sadly, many top business schools lack useful courses in leadership.

To help those employees, wouldn’t it be great to analyze the strong leadership abilities of a successful public figure and translate them into accessible, practical lessons? Better yet, why not share those examples through the vivid drama provided by the lens of sports? That’s why Daum and Ciminelli wrote their book.

Brady the Person

Brady is a man with the world at his fingertips. If he desired, he could treat teammates badly, disrespect his coaches, belittle his opponents, and brush off reporters. He’s so talented and has been so successful that many people excuse his behavior as the price of excellence or explain it away with the idea that men cannot be both great and good. True, but sad. Instead, what comes out of the locker room time and again is praise of Brady.

Stories are told about how friendly he is, how welcoming he is to new players, and how he’s one of the guys. He pushes himself harder than anyone, always puts in extra work, and tutors teammates who need help. Brady treats people well, even reporters, and brings a good attitude to work every day. He lives up to the image he puts out to the public. His actions speak louder than words, and he walks his talk.

Do your employees say the same thing about you? If not, why not?

Brady the Leader

The respect and camaraderie that Brady enjoys across the NFL is a testament to his leadership and personality. In any sport, it’s easy for star players to be prima donnas. If you have enough talent, teams will put up with a great deal of bad behavior.

In this business world, I refer to this as a toxic employee, the star who performs great on the field but is poison in the locker room. Do you have any toxic employees? If so, why do you put up with bad behavior? You must know it’s killing your company morale.

Brady has never been known to cause a locker room problem. The media consensus about Brady is the result of a man who generally practices what he preaches, exercises self-control, and keeps his priorities in check. He never forgets that his job is to lead his team to victory each and every week, and he will do whatever it takes to make that happen. He leads by example and never loses focus.

Also notice that Brady is no shrinking violet. His teammates approach him for advice because they know he will give them honest feedback that will make them better. Sometimes, that requires delivering harsh news. If a receiver isn’t running a route properly or an offensive lineman is getting outmaneuvered, Brady tells them.

He doesn’t do it cruelly, but he doesn’t pull punches either. His teammates respect his candor. They know he wouldn’t help them improve if he didn’t think they could achieve better results with their talents.

Leading with Kindness

In my experience, you can have even the most difficult conversations if you speak with kindness. You can still be direct and call a spade a spade while being kind. Are you doing this?  Give it a try, see the results, and you will never go back.

Brady makes it possible by ensuring his personality matches his reputation. He embraces the role he plays and lives the image he portrays. His teammates will run through a wall for him, and players line up to sign with his team. He even had former teammates come out of retirement wanting to join him on his new team.

Your existing employees and customers will do the same, because just like Brady, word will spread about you.

Following the Brady Model of Leadership

Have you learned leaders need to be likeable, authentic, and consistent? A crack in any of these attributes can damage an image irreparably. In fact, authentic leadership is a key predictor of an employee’s job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and workplace happiness.

Are you paying attention to how you are perceived? It matters how others view you. Effective leaders ensure they behave in a way that encourages strong relationships and builds trust.

Do you understand that authenticity is a key element of successful communication and solid teamwork? Observers can see though inauthenticity quickly, particularly when they spend as much time together as teammates do.

Even the most successful people make mistakes. No one is perfect. However, effective leaders must lead by example the vast majority of the time. Otherwise, their reputations will diminish, which hinders their ability to lead. Brady understands this and has lived it.

Know Who You Are and How Your People View Your Leadership

The most effective leaders understand that not every member has the same function, and thus don’t have the same needs. Leaders need to adjust their communication, support, and expectations based on the responsibilities each team needs to fulfill.

Authenticity is key to leadership. If you feel burdened by your team, the members of that team likely can tell. They need to feel your faith in their ability to succeed. Demonstrate it in your actions and words.

It’s hard to get ahead if everyone thinks you’re a jerk. When a leader is challenging to work with, the team’s performance usually suffers. A difficult personality develops a certain reputation. Potential teammates don’t want to work with that person, and they make other teams approach collaboration or competition with distrust.

Brady, on the other hand, has players lining up to work with him and a large following of former teammates who sing his praises. Brady works hard to create a positive public image, and he works even harder to ensure it’s a real reflection of him. He also understands that he has a very specific role to fill on his team, so he does everything he can to ensure he does that to the best of his abilities.

Leadership is About Authenticity

How well do you live the core values and core purpose of your company? If an outside observer didn’t know them, could they identify them by examining your conduct and how you lead your team?

Are you kind? It’s not the same as nice. Do you treat people with respect? Are you willing to go the extra mile for a teammate when it would help achieve the greater goal? If you’re not sure, ask yourself whether people approach you for help or advice, or whether they avoid you when they can.

Leaders work to make sure they are relatable and authentic, which requires honesty. When teammates or direct reports come to you for feedback on a project, do you dismiss them with a noncommittal “it’s fine,” or give them harsh criticism? Or do you dig deeper to help them find out how their performance could be improved? Your teammates show you respect by seeking your counsel, so demonstrate your respect for them by helping them raise their level.

In fact, the next time it’s relevant, share with your team a time when you failed. Describe the consequences, how you felt, and what you did to overcome the disappointment. Your team will appreciate the reminder of your humanity, and they will see you as an ally in their effort to grow and improve.

Authenticity is the critical driver for success in every aspect of your life, even if you aren’t a leader. The only way to earn the trust of others is by being credible, open, and honest. When it comes to leadership, it is the difference between success and failure. If your team does not trust you or see you as honest, you might as well get out of leadership.

Think about this for a second. Would you buy from someone you didn’t trust or felt was phony? Of course, you wouldn’t. It’s the same thing in leadership. Every day you are selling to your team the reason why they should follow you.

Become a Better Leader by Becoming a Better Person

The bottom line – people don’t follow titles, even when they’ve won seven Super Bowls like Tom Brady. They follow people that they know truly care and have their best interest at heart.  

A few months ago, I wrote about Unparalleled Performance’s 5Ls approach to leadership and life balance. Within those 5Ls – love, laughter, labor, leisure, leave – I believe you can find the road map to achieving authenticity.  

In the conclusion to their book, Daum and Ciminelli wrote,

“Brady’s ultimate legacy is not yet written in stone. There’s little doubt he will face tough adjustments with a new team and a different system, but there’s also little doubt that Brady will attack these challenges with the same belief, dedication, and leadership he’s always presented. No one knows what will happen in Tampa Bay, but Brady’s remarkable leadership skill will certainly light the path to success."

If you are a follower of my blog, you are familiar with my daily practice upon waking each morning: I commit to showing up as the highest version of my self that I can be. This practice centers me and prepares me for the day ahead. Thus, when something happens and I’m not in the flow, before I act or speak, I ask myself this question:

“What would love (aka kindness) do now to take care of me and to take care of the person/people/situation presented to me?”

Some days, I succeed, and some days, I fail brilliantly. But every day, I focus on living my image. I put my best self forward for the world around me, and people respond accordingly.

Are you ready to become a better leader in the Tom Brady model? Do you want to show up as the highest version of yourself that you can be and help others become the highest versions of themselves? If so, then contact me for a consultation.