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What Does Leadership in the NFL Look Like?

Kyle Wilson was a first-round pick of the New York Jets in 2010 and played seven seasons in the NFL. Wilson wrote the following story for the 33rd Team:

I had the privilege of participating in the 33rd Team Call last week and taking part in a wide-ranging discussion about team culture and leadership in the National Football League. Having played seven years in the NFL, I can speak firsthand about the importance of players stepping up as leaders – on the field, in the locker room and everywhere else that players get together and bond as teammates.

What does it take to be an effective leader? The first thing I’m thinking about is leading by example. Nobody’s going to follow or listen to anybody who’s not doing exactly what they say they’re doing.

Also, you need to be vocal. Because you are doing those actions that you’re supposed to be doing, your voice is now magnified – so you have to use it.

With that, two very important things that I stress are respect and accountability. Respect is about how you talk to people and also how people talk to you. Accountability is about doing the right things when nobody’s looking.

When you close your eyes and think about leadership on an NFL team, what does it look like? It’s actually a small group that’s literally always taking the temperature on things. Making sure everybody is on the same page. They’re a bridge to the coaches, and that’s mainly for communication.

What does it mean to establish the culture? That is the stuff we’re doing outside of work. So the coaches are going to do their job, 7:30 to 4:30. Outside of work, they’re going to do a little extra film study, do what they can to stay a step ahead. Do whatever we need to do to get better.

Same with the players. We’re playing a spread team this week? We’re gonna have to run. Let’s make sure we get in the weight room and do some extra abs, some extra stretching to make sure we’re putting ourselves in a better position.

Establishing the culture also takes place away from the facility. Thursday nights, Monday nights, we’re going bowling or we’re going out to dinner. We’re continuing to build the camaraderie. I believe all of that is a very important part of leadership.

That same leadership group is emphasizing the strengths and goals of the group. “This is what we do well. We’re gonna come out and this is the standard, this is what we do.” Whether that’s limiting incompletions, getting interceptions, limiting yards, stopping the run, that sorta thing.

There are two great leaders I’ve had the experience to play for and with.

They have very different styles of leadership, but they both got the job done. One is Chris Peterson, my head coach at Boise State. He taught me a lot about football but he also taught me more about being a man. Those things stuck with me and he was actually the first person who challenged me to be a leader, which wasn’t easy for me. What I’ve learned is that it’s not for everyone.

Coach Pete runs a tight ship, and I say that respectfully. I like his style. I try to incorporate his style in what I’m doing. Even if I’m coaching a Little League team, I incorporate a lot of principles that I’ve learned in life.

Another great leader is Bart Scott. Bart was a free agent signing with the Jets the year before I got drafted in 2010. Rex Ryan had just been hired as Jets head coach and he brought Bart with him from Baltimore because he knew the kind of player and leader he was.

If you’re having a bad day, you didn’t do something good, Bart’s going to look you in the eye and tell you that you played like garbage and that’s not okay, that’s not what we do here. But he’s also going to help you out. He’s just being honest, because he knew better and he did better. He’s willing to be critical but also willing to help.

The big thing that he exemplified was that if he did something wrong, he admitted it. “I messed up, that’s not what I’m supposed to do. It won’t happen again.”

Bart can be very vocal. He talked a lot – but when he talked, people listened. He was always in the middle of things, always leading by example. Bart was well respected by everyone, and that’s a big part of leadership. I think I was a leader among the rookies coming in, but Bart was a leader among that group of leaders on the team.

Mike Tannenbaum likes to quote a line from Bill Parcells about great players, and it really applies to Bart: “Players that have greatness, they have attributes you can’t see.” That line personifies Bart Scott.

“Bart was a problem solver in the locker room,” said Tannenbaum.

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph wrote a story for the 33rd Team last week in which he said it’s the players, not the coaches, who build the culture on an NFL team.

That’s true, but that culture is also developed with leadership from the coaches. It would generally come back to the conversations you would have. How real were those conversations? Do they really care about you? If you mentioned something to them, did they actually do something? Just the depth of those conversations is among the biggest factors with players.

Lead by example. Communicate. Be respectful and accountable. Leadership isn’t for everybody, but those who choose to be leaders can inspire.