Author Michael Robinson is an eight-year NFL veteran fullback. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012.
In 15 years of playing football at every level—high school, college and the NFL—my understanding of what it means to be a leader changed dramatically.
During high school, I believed that being a leader meant being loud. I felt I had to control my teammates to convince them to follow me. This was fueled in part by my coaches, who recognized and encouraged my passion for the game, and by teammates who saw that my love for football was real and infectious. Soon, I grew to assume complete responsibility for the success or failure of our team. I felt that if the team failed, I had failed the team.
My drive to make my teammates and myself the best we could be extended off the field, too. The community where I grew up had a rule that a student-athlete must maintain a “C” average to compete in sports, but my mother upheld a higher standard. The “Rita Rule” stated that I couldn’t get less than a “B.” Everyone on my team knew about the “Rita Rule,” and I soon began to hold my teammates to a similar standard.
As a quarterback and captain of the team, I did everything I could to make it “cool” to be successful, get good grades and keep up with our studies. I wanted my teammates to understand that when they failed a test, didn’t turn in their homework or skipped school, they were hurting the team. I told them that by not taking their studies seriously, they were disrespecting the work we were doing in the weight room and on the practice field. In some cases, I ignored close friends for weeks to make it clear that I didn’t condone laziness and wouldn’t tolerate it.
I was blatant and obvious, and my approach got results. My high school team reached the playoffs every year, twice coming within a game of a state championship, and I earned a scholarship to play football at Penn State. But when I got to college, I found that my definition of true leadership had to evolve.
College ball is a whole new ballgame, because it’s not just your family and friends anymore. Now it’s whole communities of longtime fans and new teammates who don’t know you from the hot dog guy, all watching to see if you are the person you say you are, if you’re “real.” A motto I take seriously is, “Stand for something or fall for anything.” As cliché as that sounds, it’s the essence of what leadership looks like. Know who you are first, and never let that falter. Once you figure that out, you’ll have the respect of those around you.
When I entered the NFL, the immense pressure of professional sports was unlike anything I had ever felt. As a professional athlete, you’re a grownup and you share a locker room with other grownups, who have real-life issues and problems. Athletes—adults in general—get pulled in many directions, and sometimes just asking someone how he’s doing can be incredibly powerful—far more than criticizing him or trying to influence him.
Most of my teammates just wanted to be heard. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about people just by listening. Listening builds trust and loyalty. Don’t try to come up with a better story or compete with them. Just listen. If they ask for your opinion or guidance, offer it, but never force it. Doing this, I became a quiet leader—and a team captain for both of the professional teams I played for, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.
People may think that a leader is someone who tells others what to do, but I discovered that being a good leader means paying very close attention to your teammates. Do that, and they will follow you anywhere.
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