I can't say how much of a leader is born and how much is learned. But to be an effective one requires rare skills and an ability to maintain them over time.
Leadership in an NFL locker room can take many forms. I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to many different types of leaders throughout my football career. Some were effective, others not so much.
Being the leader of a group of men in such a violent sport was not easy or natural for me. In fact, I will go so far as to say in the football world, I was never capable and/or willing to carry such a heavy load. Leadership can expose your deepest insecurities.
NFL locker rooms are a breeding ground for big egos, big personalities and big-time talent. To emerge as a leader in an NFL locker room full of grown men, most of whom have been leaders their entire life, takes something truly special.
You must meet certain requirements. The first is to establish yourself on the field. There are no words strong enough to overcome a lack of productivity. Men have always followed action much more willingly than they follow words.
An important, yet often overlooked element is having the ability to not only know exactly who you are as a person, but to like what you see and believe in yourself wholeheartedly. Only then can you even begin to hope others will see you in the same light.
This is perhaps the obstacle which most commonly weeds out the loudmouths and pretenders. Many men find out the hard way they’re not respected enough by teammates to have any significant influence.
When a person is truly honest with himself and who he is, it allows for a natural balancing process which taps into the sweet spot somewhere between humility and confidence. It’s important to have this balance as a leader; otherwise, hypocrisy will quickly expose itself.
As you might remember, this appeared to manifest itself for Mark Sanchez and the Jets toward the end of last season as the locker room quickly fell apart.
Many men try to emerge as leaders inside those locker room walls. But only a few succeed, and even fewer have the ability to establish themselves as the undisputed, unquestioned leader of the entire team. That level of leadership ability is reserved for a select few.
So what does each have in common?
The first thing that stands out is intelligence. Each of these men are equipped with rare intellectual capabilities that benefit them both as players and as leaders.
The second component has to be their love and passion for football. The dedication these men have to the game is unwavering. Leaders of this quality don’t show up to work some days feeling out of it and lazy. They bring that love and enthusiasm every single day over the course of several years. This kind of energy is absolutely infectious.
These men may have their moments of being humorous and lighthearted among the guys, but they all must carry themselves in a manner that rises above the ranks of a comedian. The best leaders must have the ability and courage to be taken seriously.
At its core, humor is our subconscious expression of our insecurities. That's why most leaders display the bare minimum of a sense of humor—just enough to be relatable.
In fact, it’s usually the anti-leaders who operate primarily in a comedic realm. Those men are often seen as carefree and lighthearted, which can be an attractive and enticing wavelength for guys within the locker room to follow. Following the jokesters tends to be the easy road and obviously the more fun one, and it also requires less of oneself in terms of commitment while trivializing all consequences, goals and values.
In my experience, the followers in this world are the ones who operate consistently in a humorous fashion.
There is nothing wrong with being a funny person. In fact, comedy is enjoyed and valued throughout the locker room. It serves a critical function in relieving tension and cementing team unity. But among a group of men brought together for a single goal won through competition, leaders must be able to rise above the comedic levels and demonstrate an aura of severity for the task at hand.
As they do this, their message must speak louder than any opposing messages that are counterproductive to the team’s goals. And believe me, there are a ton of misguided and non-productive messages swirling around each and every locker room.
It's also important to know when to lead and when to sit back and let the guys just do their own thing. Ray Lewis was a master at this. Surprisingly, he’s a man of few words on a typical day. As an NFL work week winds down, his voice and guidance is rarely heard.
Lewis’ leadership is felt primarily through his actions and example. But when it comes time to step things up, he suddenly emerges as the vocal leader we have all come to know on game days.
I have no idea whether this strategy is deliberate or just natural for Lewis, but it serves a valuable leadership function. By not satiating his teammates with endless lectures and constant demands, he allows for his words to have maximum effectiveness whenever he does decide to make a point.
This style of leadership bodes well over the long term by allowing his messages to remain fresh and relevant.
Long-winded head coaches who have remained with a team for several years are always at risk of becoming overly predictable and redundant, which compromises the effectiveness of their message, thus making it more difficult for long-term coaches to inspire their players.
Lewis is fantastic at his timing, knowing exactly when to speak and when to sit back.
Although many players feel pressured by those around them to assume a leadership role based on position or skill level, you can't force leadership onto anyone. Leadership can be encouraged and perhaps incubated, but if the elements are not properly aligned, a faux leader will soon be rendered obsolete as the “real McCoy” rises to the occasion, regardless of who wears the “C” on his jersey.
True leaders cannot be held down for long. Eventually, they must rise up and fulfill their destiny.