Legacy Leadership and the National Football League

"Is there a leader in your group who has the intensity, referent power and legacy leadership that Tom Brady conveys? Is there someone in your organization who you yearn to follow or be like? What if this leader is you? Are you presenting the winning attitude that others want to match?"
Written by Mitchell Boling on Dec 19, 2019
Legacy Leadership and the National Football League

       I hate the New England Patriots. Now, “hate” is a harsh word, but please bear with me while I elaborate for a moment. You might understand why I made that statement if I told you that I was a devoted Seattle Seahawks fan. I know, they should have given Marshawn the ball. But they didn’t, and the Seahawks lost Super Bowl XLIX to the Patriots.1 This one game doesn’t make me hate them though, there is more to it, as these two teams have a unique history. First, let me say that I’ve been a Seahawks fan since moving to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1970’s. The Seahawks’ inaugural season in the National Football League was 1976. The team endured numerous disappointing seasons, as most teams starting out do. But the 1992 season was their worst by far, with a win-loss record of 2-14.2

The 1992 season was very disappointing for the Seahawks and their fans; but owning the worst record comes with a perk. The team with this negative distinction is afforded the first pick in the following season’s college player draft. As the season came to an end, the future looked bright for the Seahawks. A quarterback from Walla Walla, Washington named Drew Bledsoe had become a national star, breaking numerous quarterback records at Washington State University. He was sure to be the number one pick in the 1993 draft, and seemed to be just what the Seahawks needed; their hometown hero to come and lead the Seahawks to glory. But of course, it didn’t work out that way, thanks to the New England Patriots.

  In 1992, the Seahawks weren’t the only disappointing team in the NFL. The New England Patriots also held this distinction with an identical 2-14 record.3 Because of this, a tiebreaker had to be decided. As fate would have it, one of the two games the Seahawks won that season was against the Patriots themselves. So, the Seahawks were just a little bit better than the Patriots that year. This awarded the first pick to the Patriots, who promptly made Drew Bledsoe the face of their franchise. The Seahawks selected quarterback Rick Mirer second,4 and from here the teams went in opposite directions.

Over the next four seasons, the Seahawks missed the playoffs, while the Patriots, led by Drew Bledsoe, were contenders every year, making it to Super Bowl XXXI where they lost to the Green Bay Packers.5 As Drew Bledsoe’s run with the Patriots began to wane, another quarterback stepped into the spotlight. Three years after their trip to Super Bowl XXXI, and before the 2000 season, the Patriots drafted a little-known quarterback from the University of Michigan. His name was Tom Brady.6

A supposed journeyman quarterback, Brady backed up Bledsoe during his rookie season. The next season another twist of fate occurred for the Patriots. In week two against the New York Jets, Drew Bledsoe sustained a serious chest injury7 which would sideline him for the rest of the season and ultimately end his time with the team after nine years. In stepped a wide-eyed Tom Brady, who nervously took the reins of his New England Patriots. The rest, as they say, is history. At the end of that season, Tom led his team to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVI over the St. Louis Rams, where he was named the MVP of the game.5 He had successfully cemented his status as the new face of the franchise and unquestioned leader of his team.

As the new face of the franchise, Tom Brady has become the quintessential quarterback and consummate leader for the New England Patriots. Over the last nineteen years as the Patriots’ leader, the “Future Hall of Famer” has won six Super Bowls (including the one over my Seahawks) and established numerous other records along the way. So yeah, I hate the New England Patriots.

But that is not what this article is about (by the way, thanks for hanging with me while I explained the unique history between these two NFL teams). This article is about one of my passions, leadership. To be more specific, it is about a concept referred to as Legacy Leadership

Legacy leadership is when people are inspired by who you are, not simply by what you do. -- Scott Cochrane 8

This quote resonated with me, as I am one who emphatically believes in the different powers in the leadership continuum. I’ve previously written about leadership powers; I wrote about them in my book, Leadership: A View from the Middle, as well as in an article for workofhonor.com, A Balance of Power.  The leadership power that sits at the top of all others is referent power. One with referent power is revered by his or her followers, as they usually exhibit a charisma or confidence that makes others comfortable in following them. They want to follow! The followers know that this leader will take them through difficult or demanding situations. Additionally, followers feel like they want to make their leader happy, or model their own behavior after theirs.9

This sounds extremely similar to the quote from Mr. Cochrane above. Legacy leadership is where the leader will leave something behind when he or she is gone.10 This is because the people who follow them are inspired by who they are, as leaders, and want to continue this behavior after the person has departed. This sounds like something that would be incredibly satisfying to anyone in a leadership position, having their followers pick up where they left off. Now, let’s relate this to the NFL and the New England Patriots.

The New England Patriots have been a very successful organization for decades. They have built a winning team through hard work and the application of legacy leadership. Since drafting Bledsoe in 1993, the Patriots have enjoyed twenty-two winning seasons and only four that were under the .500 mark.3 Let’s look at some other numbers over the same time span, comparing it to another team, the Cleveland Browns.

Since 1993, the Patriots have had eight starting quarterbacks; Bledsoe, Brady and six others who only started because of injuries or planned rest for the two leaders. By contrast, the Browns started thirty quarterbacks.11 Additionally, twenty of their twenty-three seasons were losing ones.12 Now, I’m not here to bash on the Browns or their fans. I just wanted to use a couple of well-known statistics for the comparison. What I want to show, and what I want you to think about as you read through the rest of this article, is how the Patriots organization’s successes (or maybe the Browns’ failures) measure up to your own organization’s successes (or failures). The NFL is a business, and the Patriots are one of the “companies” in this business. Why have they become so successful? Let’s explore some possibilities.

This is because of, in part, the leadership qualities that their owner, coaches and players have exhibited over the years. Just as in business, all levels of a company need to have the component of leadership in order to succeed. In football, the quarterback is the key leader on the field. The team will go as he goes, winner or otherwise. This is why all NFL teams are looking for that “Face of the Franchise.” The Patriots just happened to strike gold twice in a row with their quarterbacks.

Drew Bledsoe was the leader of the team through the nineties, and they rallied around him to become a winner. When Tom Brady took over, he followed the example that Drew had left for him and continued his winning legacy. But as Tom matured as the starting quarterback and leader of his team, he took it to another level through his play and leadership qualities.

Tom Brady is a confident, highly motivated leader. As an NFL fan, I hate it when his team plays my team. Just looking at him whether he is in the huddle, on the sidelines, or holding the Lombardi Trophy over his head, he exudes confidence and leadership. In the huddle, he is confident. On the sidelines, he is intense (especially when the team is behind or someone had made a mistake). Holding the trophy, he is exuberant, knowing that he once again, was the lynchpin in leading his team to victory.

Legacy leadership. Tom Brady exemplifies this concept. I realized this as I watched their game against the New York Jets earlier this season. He threw a pass to rookie wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who made a great, diving catch. Watching this, I immediately thought that this rookie will someday be telling his grandkids that he caught a pass from the Great Tom Brady, and the spark for this article was born in my mind.

Tom Brady will be leaving a legacy, one of leadership, when he (finally) retires from the NFL. A Hall of Famer for sure, he has built his legacy by setting or breaking records and leading his team to six Super Bowl titles (as of this writing). Players from many teams emulate him, respect him and most importantly, learn from him. He has set the example of how to perform in arduous circumstances. He has been the consummate leader for his team, and has the “been there, done that” attitude. People in and out of football want to be like him.

This brings to mind the “Be Like Mike” advertising campaign by Gatorade in the early 1990’s.13 Like Tom Brady, Michael Jordan was the leader of his team, the Chicago Bulls. He led them to numerous NBA titles, and it was his referent power and legacy leadership that powered them through. Jordan’s positive example and success led to people wanting to be like him, even to this day. People want to have someone to follow. People want to be like the charismatic leader they admire. It’s the leader’s legacy that contributes to this thought.

Remember that this isn’t about sports. It’s about leadership. When I say that people want to be like a leader they admire, it’s not all inclusive to those on a sports team. People look for someone to follow in their own lives, at home and at work. Think about how Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ organization relate to your own organization. Is there a leader in your group who has the intensity, referent power and legacy leadership that Tom Brady conveys? Is there someone in your organization who you yearn to follow or be like? What if this leader is you? Are you presenting the winning attitude that others want to match?

Legacy leadership is certainly a key thought in the realm of leading. As a follower, I would hope to aspire to become as successful as the leader whom I admire. As a leader, I would hope that I am setting the positive example for my own followers. If an organization has a leader who is capable of leaving a lasting legacy of his or her leadership qualities, then that organization will become successful in the long run.  Just like the New England Patriots.  


1. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Seattle_Seahawks_seasons

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_England_Patriots_seasons

4. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/1993/draft.htm

5. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/super-bowl/

6. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/B/BradTo00.htm

7. Greg A. Bedard, Sports Illustrated, https://www.si.com/nfl/2016/09/22/drew-bledsoe-hit-tom-brady-mo-lewis-jets

8. https://twitter.com/WScottCochrane/status/1185892171871932421

9. Vincent van Vliet, Tools Hero. https://www.toolshero.com/leadership/five-forms-of-power-french-raven/

10. Jeff Boss. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffboss/2014/06/12/6-principles-of-a-leade...

11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Cleveland_Browns_starting_quarterb...

12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Cleveland_Browns_seasons

13. Darren Rovell, ESPN, https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/famed-mike-gatorade-ad-debuted-25-years-ag...