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Leadership Lessons from The Buffalo Bills

The record for the longest playoff draught of four major sports belongs to none other than The Buffalo Bills. Sixteen Years. Sixteen long years of failure to meet the standards of a championship team. Eight different coaches. Hundreds of personnel changes. Nothing seemed to click. This week however, they will be playing for another shot to appear in the AFC championship game.

What was the spark that ignited the flame and turned the team around? Among other things….Leadership. In 2017 head coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane took the reigns and would build a foundation for what would become a championship caliber team. Since this isn’t a sports column, and we’re not ESPN we won’t dive too much into all the ingredients that make up the team’s special sauce. We can however look at some key lessons in leadership that business leaders can borrow from the Buffalo Bills’ playbook.

It all starts with a vision

From the day he started, Coach McDermott envisioned a winning team. Warren Bennis, who is widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies once said “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”  So, before you start to take the steps to achieve your goals you must have a vision. Where do you see your organization at year end. In five years? Retirement? What will be your company’s legacy?

Plan your work, work your plan

A vision is great, but without a plan on how to realize that vision it is simply a dream. According to Defensive End Jerry Hughes: “We talk about it every April, our goals, how we’re going to achieve them. What we need to do to be successful.”

Once you have a vision, make a plan on how you are going to turn that vision into reality.

Don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions

According to, “From the time he took the job McDermott knew there would be difficult decisions ahead. Decisions that would not make sense to outside observers. Decisions that would require an enormous amount of conviction to adhere to a philosophy that would eventually breed sustained success.”

As a leader you must make the decisions no one else will. While they may be unpopular at times, if they are in the interest of achieving the vision that has been set out for your organization it will pay off in the long run. Which brings us to our next point.

Build Trust

It wasn’t long before Bills fans were uttering what would become one of McDermott’s catch phrases: Trust the process. McDermott understood there would be losses along the way. Setbacks. Failures. However every setback was a building block for the comeback. In order to ensure the vision didn’t implode every time there was a negative outcome McDermott needed the team to trust the vision, trust the process.

He built that trust by being passionate. Being present. Being relentless in his pursuit of greatness. Jack Zengera, CEO and frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review along with leadership expert Joseph Folkman outline the three key elements of trust as:

    1. Positive Relationships: The extent to which a leader is able to create positive relationships with other people and groups
    2. Good Judgement / Expertise: The extent to which a leader is well-informed and knowledgeable
    3. Consistency: The extent to which leaders walk their talk and do what they say they will do

It all comes down to culture

Players describe the culture of the Buffalo Bills as one rooted in daily self improvement and trust amongst others in the organization. McDermott challenged every individual to work as a unit. For everyone to subscribe towards a common goal. Selflessness in its truest form. Observers will notice McDermott often credits everyone with a Bills ID badge for their successes. The Bills have built a team culture. As much as we hate to use such a cliché term it rings true here. There is no “I” in team. When your culture is rooted in teamwork everyone wins.

Forbes Council member Diana Rodriguez-Zaba put it simply: “By fostering and maintaining a strong, positive team culture, you can keep your employees happy and make your job easier. It’s simply good business.”

Build a winning team

When describing the construction of today’s Bills team, Bills insider Chris Brown states “the foundation of that build was chiefly focused on getting the right people on board and moving on from those who wouldn’t be able to subscribe to what was soon to be asked of them.”

It should come as no revelation that in order to win or succeed in business you need key players. However what is often overlooked is sometimes talent doesn’t outweigh culture fit. If you can’t get a key player to buy into the team vision, it may be time to move on from them. In order for your vision to become reality, it requires EVERYONE in your organization to “Trust the process.”


Leadership is the ability to get people to believe in themselves. To not follow you, but to join you, and to believe in you. Go Bills.

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