Leadership Lessons from Big Ben and Sidney Crosby

Todd FlemingAnalyst IMay 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH - MAY 06:  Forward Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against the Washington Capitals during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Mellon Arena on May 6, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh fans are fortunate to have not just one, but several of the top players in the world in their respective sports playing for the Steelers and the Penguins. 

James Harrison was named the best defensive player in football this year and Evgeni Malkin was one of three finalists as the best hockey player in the NHL this year. 

But, the two players who have become the faces of their teams are Ben Roethlisberger and Sidney Crosby.  These two players are superb leaders who share a lot of the same traits. 

While they play very different sports, they are cut from the same cloth.  These are the guys you want leading your team when the game is on the line.

Both offer regular clinics in leadership, not in the words that they say, but in the way they play their sports.

And, because of their leadership, Pittsburgh may once again boast the title “City of Champions,” allowing Pittsburghers to party like it's 1979.  Only eight more wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs stand in the way of that. 

Here are some of the leadership traits that these two special athletes share in common:

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Commitment to Excellence:  All great leaders are fully committed to becoming the best they can at their craft.  If you don’t demand excellence of yourselves, nobody else will follow you. 

Both Big Ben and Sid are committed to being the absolute best players at their positions.  They don’t accept anything short of perfection out of themselves. 

Other players look up to them and follow them because they are giving it all they got on every play and shift. 

It is awfully hard to skate a lazy shift when you see Sid out on the ice attacking the other team’s defense like a man possessed. 

I imagine the same can be said of the Steelers.  When they enter the huddle with the game on the line and see the fire in Roethlisberger’s eyes, I can’t imagine anybody is not motivated to give it everything they’ve got.   

Loyalty:  Great leaders are fiercely loyal to those in their organization.  Does anyone doubt the loyalty of Big Ben or Crosby? 

Despite getting knocked around like a piñata over the last couple years, Big Ben has never pointed his finger at his offensive line.  In fact, he is the first to praise them and take them out to dinners. 

I’ve never heard him say a bad word about any of his teammates nor do I expect he ever will during what will be a Hall of Fame career.  He just doesn’t seem the type. 

Contrast that to Peyton Manning throwing his offensive linemen under the bus following one of his early playoff exits. 

The same can be said of Sidney Crosby.  In his first couple years in Pittsburgh, he played on some woeful teams.  He never complained. 

He just worked that much harder and did all in his power to help make the players around him better.  Both players are fiercely loyal to their teams and their teammates. 

A Desire to Make Everyone around Them Better:  Contrast Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for a moment.  Despite having once-in-a-generation talent, Sidney Crosby is more than happy to pass the puck, putting his teammates in position to score the goals.  If anything, he does this to a fault. 

Ovechkin, on the other hand, has never seen a puck he didn’t immediately shoot.  One player is trying to elevate the play of his teammates while the other player wants to be the one who gets to hurl himself into the boards, the center of attention.  Both are superb players.  But, Crosby is the better leader. 

The same can be said of Ben.  When Santonio Holmes came to him before the final touchdown drive in the Super Bowl and told Ben that he wanted to be the go-to guy, Ben obliged. 

He understood that it was important to show faith in his wide receiver.  He also had the instincts to recognize when another player on the team was ready to elevate his game.

He showed so much faith in Holmes that it likely cost him the Super Bowl MVP since he looked to Holmes repeatedly on that drive.  But, he led his team to the victory while elevating the play of those around him.   

Commitment to the Team:  Can anyone imagine Roethlisberger or Crosby playing for any team other than the Steelers and Penguins?  Both are team guys. 

Crosby is a hockey miracle worker.  Every team in the league would stand in line to pull up a convoy of armored trucks full of money to his door to sign him.  But, he took less money to play for the Penguins and make them a champion.  

This is a trait common to all of the Steelers leaders.  Troy Polamalu was recently asked if he considered himself a California guy or a Pittsburgher.

He was quick to answer that he is a Pittsburgher through and through, even going so far as to saying he gets mad whenever the Pirates lose.  Poor guy.  Who would have known that the soft-spoken Troy has an anger management issue?

Can you imagine Roethlisberger throwing a tantrum like Jay Cutler to get traded or refusing to play for a team like Eli Manning did during the 2004 draft?  No way.  He is a class guy. 

Once he was drafted by the Steelers, he was fully committed to his team.  That is one way in which he differs from his hero, John Elway, who was the original Eli Manning, refusing to play for the team that drafted him.

You can also see this commitment born out by Roethlisberger in his willingness to play in an offense that commits to running the ball.  He never complains that “Steelers’ football” is holding him back.  He just goes out there and does everything he is asked to do to help his team win.  

No Excuses:  One of the first things any leader learns is to leave the excuses at the door.  Freshmen at the service academies are taught to answer all “why” questions with, “No excuse, sir (or ma’am).” 

Great leaders accept responsibility when things don’t go their way.  They don’t make excuses.  Roethlisberger accepted the blame when the Steelers lost in the 2004 AFC Championship game.  In fact, he demanded it. 

He also did not make any excuses for his less than stellar performance in the Super Bowl the next year.  While he made a ton of big plays in that game, he was still not willing to offer any excuses after the game, despite leading his team to a championship.

Nor did Big Ben blame the Steelers’ disappointing 2006 season on the motorcycle accident or the surgery before the start of the season, although the media gave him plenty of opportunities to do just that.  

This has endeared him to Steelers' Nation even if it has helped to contribute to some of the “myths” that have emerged about him. 

The same can be said of Crosby.  You will never hear him make an excuse when the Penguins lose.  He’ll just get back out on the ice and get back to work.    

A Burning Desire to Win:  Both players have that inner fire that is present in all of the special athletes.  Losing is just not in their vocabulary.  It is unacceptable.  The Steelers could be down 30 points.  It wouldn’t matter. 

Ben would still be giving it 100 percent while trying to lead the team back.  That is one of the main reasons he has led so many comebacks.  He just doesn’t know how to lose. 

In turning to Crosby, even the best hockey players are going to lose a lot of games.  But, that doesn’t make it any easier. 

In game six of the playoff series against the Capitals, the Penguins were down by one goal late in the third period. 

Crosby was flying around the ice like a man possessed trying to get the tying goal.  He left it all on the ice. 

And he did get that goal, even though the Penguins would lose that one in overtime.  I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a Penguins game when I wasn’t completely convinced that Crosby threw his heart and soul into the effort.   

Ability to Elevate their Game:  As good as these two guys are, they both have the ability to elevate their games at key moments.  They are clutch. 

With Roethlisberger, what more can be said?  I’m not sure there has ever been a quarterback who is better when a game is on the line. 

When Arizona Cardinals’ coach Ken Whisenhunt was asked what he thought when Larry Fitzgerald scored the go ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl, he answered that there was too much time left. 

After coaching Big Ben in Pittsburgh, he knew that he would be champing at the bit to get back on the field and win the game. 

And while Crosby is superb in every game, he is a different player in the playoffs the way he flies around the ice making things happen. 

That is not to say that either player isn’t giving it their all under normal circumstances.  But, they always find that extra reserve of intestinal fortitude when they need it most. 

Acceptance of Their Leadership Role:  This one goes without saying.  There are great players.  And there are great players who are also leaders.

I don't think you can be a great quarterback without being a great leader, nor can you be the face of a hockey franchise without accepting that leadership role. 

Both of these guys know that the spotlight is on them.  Both know they will be torpedoed by the media for any misstatement or mistake.  But, both accept and even embrace their leadership roles.  This is what really sets them apart. 

On the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin is a superb player, one of the best players in hockey.  But, he defers to Crosby as the leader.  And nobody questions the leadership responsibility of either Roethlisberger or Crosby.      

Leadership by Example:  All great leaders lead by example.  They are the ones who are out there practicing a little longer and a little harder than everyone else. 

This means they are willing to do the little things to help the team.  This means, that even though you are the quarterback, you are willing to throw a block on a blitzing linebacker to spring a trick play in the Super Bowl. 

It means that even though you are one of the top offensive players in hockey, you rush back to the defensive zone to help out the defenders. 

Those are the kinds of things that leaders do.   Crosby was also leading by example when he took less money than he is worth to ensure the Penguins had the cap room to improve the team.  Although in that case, not too many players lined up to follow.

Perseverance:  Great leaders persevere in the face of adversity.  Both players have faced plenty of both.  Roethlisberger gets sacked more than just about any quarterback in football and also suffered a motorcycle accident that would have killed most people. 

Both players have bounced back from crushing playoff defeats to lead their teams to greater heights the next season. 

It is his ability to persevere that led Big Ben to promise Jerome Bettis to get him to his first Super Bowl, although that also showed plenty of vision and just a touch of insanity. 

It is also perseverance that has Sidney Crosby back in the conference finals.  He recently pointed out that if you can’t get excited about playing for a Stanley Cup, you don’t belong in hockey.  True.

But, plenty of players don’t have the perseverance needed to commit to playing at the highest level game after game. 

This is why so many teams that lose the Super Bowl belly flop the next season.  That is a huge emotional downer that it is hard to pick yourself back up from.  The record of teams who lose in the Stanley Cup finals, as the Penguins did last year, isn't much better leading to talk of a Stanley Cup curse.  But, when you have leaders with the drive to persevere, this becomes much less of an issue.

Roethlisberger and Crosby both have the ability to overcome and persevere in the face of adversity.  And, their teams, following their lead, do the same.      

It is because of all of these traits that Pittsburgh has two of the greatest players in all of sports.  These are the intangibles that don't always show up in stat lines. 

Both players inspire their teams to be better.  And their teams respond by competing for championships.