EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Bill Belichick's leadership problem
April 1, 2008
We’re not talking here about how he’s got to pick up the pieces after his team’s shocking last-minute loss to the Giants in this year’s Super Bowl. Or how he’ll restore his credibility after allegations his team stole signals from one opponent and filmed another’s practice. No, this concerns a challenge familiar to almost any leader in the business world. Bill Belichick, winner of three Super Bowls as football coach of the New England Patriots, is now widely hailed a football genius (at least until the last Super Bowl), but he faced a formidable problem when he started his first job as an assistant coach of a National Football League team.
It wasn’t that he went to work for an extremely cheap organization, and got his foot in the door by offering to work for free.
It was 1975, and Belichick had just graduated from Wesleyan College, a small liberal arts school in Connecticut. He faced a dilemma many safety and health professionals confront â€” and not necessarily only in their early years. How would Belichick earn the respect of his players (employees are the parallel for safety and health pros) and the other coaches, general manager and owner (supervisors and upper management for safety and health pros)?
Barriers to leadershipBelichick came to his first job younger than most of his players. In the ultra-macho world of NFL locker rooms (something like construction, mining and logging rolled into one) he cut an unimpressive figure. He wasn’t an athletic stud, like his players, but rather small and slow. He didn’t have the jut-jawed, chiseled features of authority figures like NFL coaches Mike Ditka, Dick Vermeil or Bill Cowher. He had no charisma about him. No gift for gab, no one-liners, no “attaboy attitude.” Seldom did he smile, and quick was he to get in your face. Suffice to say Belichick probably did not have Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” on his nightstand. Sportswriters would later dub him “Dr. Doom.” (Something akin to safety and health managers being zinged as “Dr. No.”)
As described in the late David Halberstam’s book, “The Education of a Coach” (Hyperion, 2005), Belichick “had not attended a great football program… he came from outside the game as they (the players) knew it.” And football players, size and ego aside, are really no different from other employees: They judge those who come into their world by the person’s job experience. It’s no different on an assembly, a shipping dock or up on a skyscraper. “Have you walked in my shoes? Paid your dues? Played this game?”
Anxious for respectNo, no, and no would be Belichick’s answer to those questions. It’s the same for safety and health managers armed with college degrees stepping onto a construction site or into a mill for the first time. Yet, Belichick “could not succeed unless he gained (the players’) respect and could impose his authority,” writes Halberstam. About this potential resistance he was more than a little anxious at first. Many of you reading this can relate â€” whether it was coming to your first job, your most recent job, or a new consulting gig.
Belichick’s father was a coaching lifer, and Bill had been around college players and the game since he was a boy. Like many a safety and health pro, he was observant, a quick study, and came to understand human nature. “The most important thing, he believed, the thing that in the end generated respect, was not necessarily a loud and commanding or threatening voice, but knowledge,” writes Halberstam.
Use your headIn Belichick’s world of football, “players respected coaches who could help them play better and who knew things they didn’t know,” according to Halberstam. It’s an easy transition to the work-a-day world of safety and health pros. Employees respect safety and health managers (or safety coaches) who can help them work safer, avoid injury, and who know things about safety and health (hazards, exposures, chemicals, regulations, PPE, the list goes on) they don’t know.
Wait a minute â€” isn’t this just the old “knowledge is power” thing?
Well yes, but the trick is how you go about, in a practical sense, applying this cliché. Belichick, like almost all workaholic young NFL assistant coaches, had one goal from the start: to be the man, the head coach. As he quickly ascended the ranks he learned how to leverage his knowledge, expertise, rare insights and instincts to earn respect, lead his players, in fact, empower them. Much like safety and health pros, Belichick as a coach wanted his men â€” his workforce â€” to know what to do in the rush of the moment when no one would be watching over their shoulders, barking instructions.
Taking the reinsBy the time Belichick got his first head coaching job, in Cleveland, he knew how to wield his power. Again, the parallels to safety and health come readily. He put aside his ego. (No arrogant safety know-it-alls.) He was obsessed with organization (a management system) and preparation (meetings and training). He wanted team players who blended well together (just like your safety team), not high-maintenance all-pros.
Belichick made mistakes, abused his power and paid the price, in that Cleveland job. He bent his rules for certain players. His intense, private personality clashed mightily with the owner’s flashy celebrity style. In the parlance of safety and health, his community outreach efforts were virtually nil. Worst of all, Belichick unceremoniously cut the team’s popular if aging quarterback in mid-season. Cleveland’s passionate fans and the media launched what Halberstam called something “like a football lynching.” Belichick needed police stationed near his family’s home. He was fired after Cleveland went 5-11 in his last season.
Lessons learnedSeveral leadership lessons emerge here: Before you take a leadership position, check your compatibility with the boss. Are you going to have a fair shot to develop your (safety and health) program in an acceptable time frame? (The Cleveland owner was financially strapped and needed to win immediately to fill seats.) One set of rules goes for everyone.
And this is important: “You can be right, but sometimes when you are right you are wrong, too,” writes Halberstam, “which is what happened in Cleveland.” Years later, Belichick blamed himself for mishandling the quarterback’s brutal dumping and humiliation. “He thought he was just doing his job, but he had been mistaken; he had defined his job too narrowly,” writes Halberstam.
That’s a danger for safety and health pros, too. The stereotype is narrow: the safety guy as OSHA expert, the compliance cop. Check out your culture: You might just have more leverage, more opportunities, more influence â€” more power â€” than you think. A healthy dose of self-confidence helps. That’s not a problem for most coaches. Just don’t overdo it and show up to work in Belichick’s trademark sideline sweatshirt hoodie.
Dave Johnson, Editor