Ultimate Account Blog

Why Great Players Rarely Make Great Coaches or Leaders



The NFL playoffs are upon us, and at the end of each game, the winning and losing head coach and star players meet the press to talk about the game, what went right or wrong, and why the game result occurred. Listening to their responses gives an idea of what type of leader they are.

I was recently at a leadership seminar where we spent significant time discussing the differences between the leadership levels described by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. As noted in the graphic below, Level 5, Executive, is the highest level of leadership. Making the jump from Level 4, Effective Leader, to Level 5 is difficult, as there is a completely different mindset between the two levels.



The biggest distinguishing characteristic in Level 5 is personal humility, not needing to take credit for everything, but willing to take the blame. Level 4 leaders will accept the praise and divvy out the blame.

When it comes to NFL press conferences, nobody portrays humility better than Andy Reid. He is a Level 5 leader. Fans of Reid’s teams will often complain about his poor game management, but that is a practical skill, not a leadership skill. When it comes to leadership, Reid is at the top.

When his current team, the Kansas City Chiefs, turned a 21-3 lead into a 22-21 surprising defeat in the AFC Wildcard round during the first weekend in January, the media grilled Reid about how the game turned around. The questions centered on the calling of offensive plays, a duty that Reid had recently delegated to one of his assistants, Matt Nagy, a one-time resident of Lancaster County.

When asked who made the play calls in the second half that kept the Chiefs from scoring points and let the opponents back into the game, Reid said, “Matt called the good ones; I called the bad ones.” This is in no way true. Coaches wouldn’t split the play-calling duties, and it would be highly unlikely for one coach to have all of the success in an area and the other to have all the failure.

Reid, however, was not going to allow his assistant to be assigned any blame. The head coach assumes ultimate responsibility, and Reid took it. Later in the week, Nagy became head coach of the Chicago Bears.

A Level 4 leader often gets excellent results, but the approach is different. A Level 5 leader puts the organization and his team members first; a Level 4 leader has success because of self-centered motivations.

In the sporting realm, to continue our analogy, two players come to mind who are perfect examples of Level 4 leaders. There was a recent article by ESPN that detailed Tom Brady’s relationship with his teammates, coaches and owner. The article describes that Brady was threatened by the player who would eventually take his place as the Patriots quarterback and made sure that this backup was traded to another team. That is quintessential Level 4 leadership. Brady wants the team to excel, but only if he is a part of it. He cares little for how the team does once he leaves.

Head Coach Bill Belichick, who selected the backup in the NFL Draft, was focused more upon the long-term success of the organization, a Level 5 trait. Brady is widely viewed as the best quarterback in history, but he will never be considered the greatest leader in football.

Similarly, Michael Jordan is widely deemed the best basketball player of all time. He had an insatiable need to win, and his teams achieved great success, claiming six titles in eight years (with Jordan playing little in the two intervening years). Jordan would famously belittle teammates, and his Hall of Fame speech was more about how he proved people wrong than about those who helped him on his way. Jordan is a classic Level 4 leader.

Because of his stature and wealth, Jordan and his business partners thought that because he was a successful player that he would be a successful executive. Yet, as a team owner, he has found next to no success (see chart below of Charlotte’s record with Jordan as an owner).



Jordan changed roles but not his leadership style. Level 4 leaders are not going to create lasting success as the top rung on the corporate ladder.

This is why many great athletes failed to become good coaches or executives. They have great on-field leadership, but their self-focus does not lend well toward leading others to greatness.

The sporting world is different from the business world in many ways, but leadership is not necessarily one of them. Level 5 leaders, in any industry, will get the best results possible and set the company up for long-term success. Level 4 leaders will garner less commitment and their achievements are often fleeting.


By Dan Massey, CPA, Principal

Dan Massey, Walz Group, Ultimate Account Blog







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