Leadership Principles: From the Football Field to the Executive Suite
by Ellen Stuhlmann

For most sports fans, Sunday afternoon at the football stadium - or camped in front of the TV - is no time to be thinking about leadership. After all, what do touchdowns and punt returns have in common with getting your sales team to meet their annual goals or pulling the programming crew together to launch the next version of your software on time?

Quite a lot if you ask Brian Billick, head coach of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens. And he should know. Not only did Billick lead the Ravens to success in only his second year coaching the team; he's also spent the past three years studying the subject of leadership, a labor of love that resulted in his recently published book, Competitive Leadership: Twelve Principles for Success.

Fresh from the Super Bowl win, it wouldn't be unusual for Billick to have published a book about the highs and lows of a grueling football season. But that's not what Billick set out to do. "What it is not is a chronicle of our championship year," says Billick. "The main reason I wrote the book is because [leadership is] a topic that has interested me for a long time."

In fact, Billick spends much of his free time traveling the country to speak to corporate groups about leadership. It is, of course, a hot topic. With leadership skills frequently cited as one of the top qualities companies seek in their executives, there is no shortage of interest in the topic from the corporate world. In his speeches, as in his book, he relates lessons learned from reading the writings of military leaders, educators, corporate leaders and other coaches. And naturally, he frequently draws parallels from his own experiences on the football field - including the Super Bowl season.

"As I reviewed the sequence of events of the season it became apparent that virtually all of the leadership qualities and characteristics I've identified were tested in the championship year," says Billick. He's referring to certain obstacles the Ravens faced before their ultimate success - a losing history and a reputation as a team of underachievers, the arrest of the team's star player, a heartbreaking mid-season slump. "In the second year, conquering adversity was our hallmark," says Billick.

The book is not an attempt to define leadership, says Billick, although he adds that he believes "leadership might best be defined as the ability to influence the behavior and actions of others to achieve an intended purpose." But rather than trying to come up with a concrete definition, Billick instead outlines 12 principles for building effective leadership skills.

"What it does do, I think, is give people a general idea of the qualities of leadership that are needed to be successful," he says. The principles are simple and almost self-explanatory:

  • Be Values-Oriented;
  • Be Prepared;
  • Be Self-Disciplined;
  • Be Knowledgeable;
  • Be Performance-Oriented;
  • Be a Communicator;
  • Be a Motivator;
  • Be a Problem Solver;
  • Be a Team Builder;
  • Be Opportunistic;
  • Be Self Assured;
  • Be Courageous.

Like the books, the principles are "about being proactive," says Billick. "Leadership isn't going to come to you."

Confidence, of course, is a key quality, "inherent in any leadership position," Billick says. "That can't just be sheer force of will. It has to be born of a competence in what you do, a passion for what you do and an energy level required to sustain your role as a leader."

Energy and passion have long been skills required by successful leaders. "Winston Churchill used to take a two hour nap every day," Billick points out. "This man used to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day because he was able to maintain a certain energy level."

Still, while the above principles and characteristics are all important, Billick highlights one major lesson he learned while researching and writing the book. "What became very apparent to me is how many top leaders develop leadership qualities in others," he says. "They spend an incredible amount of time and resources in developing the leadership qualities in those in their organization." It is an important quality, says Billick.

"Too often people think of leadership as being someone who is in the absolute position of authority and who is supposed to have answers to every situation." Instead, says Billick, "the most inherent quality of leadership is first recognizing that you aren't the final authority and that sometimes being a good leader is as simple as knowing to ask the right question." It's a lesson Billick takes to heart. "I'm never going to pretend to have all the answers," he says. "But I know how to find them and I surround myself with good people."

While the book clearly has appeal for those with an interest in football, Billick stresses that it's not just for sports fan. Anyone who has an interest in leadership can learn, as he has, from other leaders. "Those qualities I need to coach the Ravens are the same a business leader, a politician or even an educator needs," he says. After all, says Billick, "the word coach is nothing more than a euphemism for teacher and leader."

"Possessing the essential mental attributes for a leadership role may collectively involve something as simple as knowing enough to ask the right questions."

"If you are not prepared to exhibit a constant level of energy, those around you will respond in kind."

"The best way to become a skillful leader - whether as a coach, an executive, a politician, or whatever - is not to set out to become "perfect," but rather to aim to be effective all of the time."

- Brian Billick in Competitive Leadership: Twelve Principles for Success.

Competitive Leadership:
Twelve Principles for Success,
by Brian Billick and James A. Peterson,
Triumph Books,
May 2001.


Ellen Stuhlmann is Managing Director of ExecuNet. ExecuNet is recognized as the Internet's most comprehensive resource for effective career management, exclusively for executives and senior-level managers with salaries above $100,000. Founded in 1988 and online since 1995, ExecuNet is the nation's first and most respected online executive career site. ExecuNet is a community of senior level executives, and has served more than 50,000 executives and 5,000 companies and executive recruiters by posting more than 30,000 executive positions annually.

Reproduced with permission of ExecuNet.

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