With 7 short words, Tom Brady just taught a dangerous lesson in leadership

This is a story about NFL quarterback Tom Brady and an important leadership lesson for your business.

In fact, these are two lessons, both of which have recently been exposed, and one of which can easily contradict the other.

This all stems from the closing minutes of last week’s final regular season game between Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers.

The Buccaneers won the game, moving away: 41-17. But what the game lacked in suspense, it made up for when we saw what happened between Brady and his teammate, tight end Rob Gronkowski.

“I need one more”

Gronkowski was “microphone” during the game, meaning he literally had a microphone on his uniform.

As a result, we got to witness that brief exchange of touches between teammates, when the game was essentially over except for running out of time, and when you’d normally expect Brady and the other starters to sit the rest of the way. . , rather than running the slightest risk of injury before the playoffs which begin this weekend:

Gronkowski: “Let’s go! I need one more!”
Brady: “Another take?”
Gronkowski: “Yeah.”

[Fist bump.]

Sure enough, Brady stayed in the game, responding forcefully to his coaches wanting him out. He played long enough to throw one more pass to Gronkowski and then was replaced by his replacement.

So what was going on? Simple economics, combined with leadership. Gronkowski’s contract, like many pro contracts, contains incentive clauses. Among them:

  • A $500,000 bonus if he reaches 750 receiving yards for the season, and
  • Another $500,000 if he got up to 55 strikes.

Before the last game, both goals were in sight, but not automatic. It took him 85 yards for first base and seven catches for second. Towards the end, during the trade above, he had reached the yardage milestone for the first $500,000.

But, he still has a shot left for the second $500,000 bonus.

‘Thanks baby. I had to look for you.’

After the play, here’s Brady and Gronkowski’s next mic exchange:

Gronkowski: Tom! Good luck, dog!
Brady: Thank you baby. I had to look for you.
Gronkowski: Thank you. Thanks, dog.

These seven words ending with “I had to have you” sums it all up. It was the right thing to do under the circumstances, and it’s a reminder to always look for leaders who watch over the people around them.

(Brady did the same for then-teammate Antonio Brown in the final game of last year, giving him three receptions in the final minutes of the game to earn him a $250,000 bonus. )

But, there’s another lesson you can keep in mind while praising Brady for doing what he did, while wondering if perhaps a higher-level leader wouldn’t have allowed this situation to develop in the first place.

Create additional incentives

It has to do with thinking very deeply about the types of incentives you accept with your key employees, and only choose actions that consistently align with your ultimate goals.

Giving a key player like Gronkowski an incentive to get more catches and yards is likely aligned with goals like winning another Super Bowl, or even just providing some exciting plays for fans.

But you also have to be very careful with hit or miss milestones, which can cause your key players at the end to do things that don’t necessarily fit anymore.

In fact, they can put a leader in a position where doing the right thing for a team member is also dangerous for the organization.

Namely: Chasing a stat in the final moments of a game that’s only ended, when that stat is no longer aligned with the ultimate goal, especially when there is a non-zero risk of a miraculous return or injury for a key player.

Luckily for the Bucs, none of those happened here. But, retiring from football, imagine you have a key salesperson, who knows they hit a milestone or cliff bonus after selling 200 units a year – but nothing for 199.

One can imagine them offering much better deals on later units as it approaches the magic number.

Or, imagine you have delivery drivers who get a bonus every time they drop off within 20 minutes, but get nothing if it takes them 21 minutes.

You can imagine the extra effort they might put in when they approach 19 or 20 minutes, as well as the abandonment that might naturally occur if they knew they were already over the time limit.

A final example: a well-known airline has created an incentive for its planes to take off on time, no matter what. But, its pilots said that focus left them no leeway to do common sense things that benefited passengers, even if it resulted in a few minutes late departure.

So what is the solution ? I think it’s about including well-thought-out incentives, but with a bias towards incremental or incremental milestones, instead of big bluffs.

Things like 50% of the sales bonus at the 50% mark, with 10% steps above. Or, anchor bonuses to the stats someone posts on average, as opposed to the one-time milestone.

In the end, it didn’t really matter to Brady and the Bucs. But, repeat that kind of scenario over and over again – with lots of salespeople, lots of drivers, lots of airplane pilots and customers – and you can see how it ultimately poses a risk.

That’s why I love watching sports for leadership and business lessons. Things are often so transparent, digital and transferable. It’s also why I wrote about Brady’s other leadership lessons at length in my free ebook, Tom Brady always wins: 10 success lessons from the GOAT.

It needs to be updated. But maybe I’ll wait to see if Brady can lead the Buccaneers to a second straight Super Bowl first. How’s that for an incentive?

The opinions expressed here by the columnists of are theirs and not those of

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