When the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons face off in Super Bowl LI on Sunday, we will be witnessing far more than just the football essentials of passing, catching, running, kicking, blocking, and tackling. Whether fans recognize it or not, the championship game will put some of the finest in leadership and organizational culture on display and to the test, led by two exceptional coaches whose examples can teach a lot to leaders everywhere.
Dan Quinn, head coach of the Falcons, and Bill Belichick, head coach and de facto general manager of the Patriots, are both known for their distinctive approaches to leadership on the sidelines and, perhaps more importantly, off the field. For leaders wanting insights into how to improve their organizations, this year’s Super Bowl coaches offer three powerful lessons.
Create a sense of ownership
A story often told about Belichick is that he refers to every member of the Patriots organization as a “shareholder.” Not the players alone, but every member, from front office to coaching staff. And being a shareholder, Belichick has said, translates into having “an opportunity to show positive leadership or negative leadership.” In other words, values don’t belong to the organization; they are the property of each individual and are held collectively.
The business corollary here is “organizational identification”—meaning how readily people identify with their organizations. As research shows, when organizational identification is strong, job satisfaction and performance both tend to be higher. Strong organizational identification is also connected to higher employee retention, which can deepen trust and enhance any team’s collaborative effectiveness. In addition, people are more willing to be a “brand ambassador” for the company, attracting new customers, business partners, and talent.
Empower people with meaningful roles and responsibilities
One of the essential ingredients for any high-performing team is having a clear, meaningful role for each member of the team to play in order to achieve the team’s shared objectives. Poorly defined and poorly understood roles inhibit collaboration, drive disengagement, and make holding individuals accountable nearly impossible, which ultimately undermine performance. Both the Falcons and the Patriots stand as examples of how creating clear, meaningful roles and responsibilities for everyone can translate into better performance and a winning culture.
Quinn, who started his career in the 1990s as an assistant defensive line coach at William & Mary College, is known for encouraging, disciplining, and teaching his players, elevating what he expects them to accomplish—and what they expect of themselves.
Similarly, Belichick’s leadership style empowers people by giving them titles that carry meaning. For example, team captain isn’t an empty or honorary title for resumé-padding purposes – it conveys real expectations to lead. Clear expectations come with clear accountability. Belichick’s approach has been described as “do your job, hold people accountable,” which may partly explain why he is one of the winningest coaches in the history of professional sports.
Emphasize culture fit over raw talent
A football team can be composed of all-stars—the best of the best at every position—but have terrible chemistry that undermines its performance. That’s why both Quinn and Belichick are known for putting more emphasis on fit with team culture than on raw talent, alone. Belichick is credited for knowing “culture beats strategy every time.” Quinn, meanwhile, went to great lengths to study how to create a championship culture, including consulting with others whom he admired, such as New York Giants coach Bill Parcells.
This secret to team success reminds organizations that, in the war for talent, it’s not about getting the best and brightest minds or the person with the most skills. The candidate who looks the best “on paper” from a competence or skills perspective may not be the best person in terms of embodying the organization’s purpose and living out its values.
A core component of culture is clearly articulating the organization’s values in word and in deed. In other words, values need to be known, heard, and experienced. Quinn, for example, brought the Navy Seals in to help instill certain values, which the coach described as “mental toughness and resilience, teamwork and stress management.” (The Patriots have also trained with the Navy Seals.) Rather than talking about “toughness,” players were given a unique experience of the attribute—as well as a way to measure it. Now, a cultural value can be assessed just like a standard football skill such as speed or agility.
Leaders are responsible for stewarding the culture of their organizations by defining purpose, exemplifying shared values, and implementing practices and procedures that are emblematic of those values. No matter the brilliance of the strategy or the raw talent of the players, culture is any organization’s only truly sustainable competitive advantage.
While many will measure the outcome of Super Bowl Sunday by the final score of the game or even the effectiveness of the commercial advertising, a perhaps more important measure will be the quality of leadership on display. Both the Patriots and the Falcons exhibit exceptional leadership and strong organizational values, which make each a winning team.
Nicholas Pearce is a clinical professor of management & organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.