Actually, it's about two lessons, both of which were on display recently, and one of which can easily contradict the other.
It all stems from the waning minutes of last week's final regular-season game between Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers.
The Buccaneers won the game, walking away: 41 to 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 mic'd up during the game, meaning he literally had a microphone on his uniform.
As a result, we were able to catch this brief sideline exchange between the teammates, when the game was essentially over except for running out the clock, and when you'd normally expect that Brady and other starters might sit out the rest of the way, rather than run any risk of injury before the playoffs that begin this weekend:
Gronkowski: "Let's go! I need one more!"
Brady: "One more catch?"
Sure enough, Brady stayed in the game--responding forcefully to his coaches who wanted to take him out. He played long enough to throw one more pass to Gronkowski, and was then replaced by his backup.
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 reached 750 receiving yards for the season, and
- Another $500,000 if he got up to 55 catches.
Going into the last game, both goals were in sight, but not automatic. He needed 85 yards to reach the first goal, and seven catches for the second. Near the end, during the exchange above, he'd reached the yardage milestone for the first $500,000.
But, he still needed one more catch for the second $500,000 bonus.
'Thanks baby. I had to get you.'
After the play, here's Brady and Gronkowski's next mic'd-up exchange:
Gronkowski: "Tom! Good pass, dog!"
Brady: "Thanks, baby. I had to get you."
Gronkowski: "Thank you. Thank you, dog."
Those seven words--ending with "I had to get you"--encapsulate it all. It was the right thing to do in the circumstance, and it's a reminder always to look for leaders who watch out for the people around them.
(Brady did a similar thing for then-teammate Antonio Brown in the final game last year, shoveling him three receptions in the waning minutes of the game so he'd reach a $250,000 bonus.)
But, there's another lesson--one that you can keep in mind while praising Brady for doing what he did, while also thinking about whether a higher-level leader might not have allowed this situation to develop in the first place.
Create incremental incentives
It has to do with thinking very deeply about the kinds of incentives you agree to with your key employees, and picking only metrics 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 simply delivering exciting games for fans.
But, you also want to be very careful with all-or-nothing milestones, which can leave your key players with incentives at the end to do things that no longer necessarily align.
In fact, they can put a leader in a position where doing the right thing for a team member is also dangerous to the organization.
To wit: chasing a stat in the waning moments of a game that is but over, when that statistic is no longer aligned with the ultimate goal--especially when there's a non-zero risk of either a miraculous comeback or some chance of injury to a key player.
Fortunately for the Bucs, neither of those happened here. But, pulling back from football, imagine you have a key salesperson, who knows he or she hits a key milestone or cliff bonus after selling 200 units per year -- but nothing for 199.
One can imagine them offering much better deals on the later units as he or she nears the magic number.
Or, imagine you have delivery drivers who get a bonus that kicks in for each time they make a drop-off within 20 minutes -- but who get nothing if it takes them 21 minutes.
You can imagine the extra effort they might make when they approach 19 or 20 minutes, along with the drop-off that might naturally come if they knew they'd already missed the deadline.
A final example: A well-known airline created an incentive for its planes to take off on time, no matter what. But its pilots said the single-minded focus left them with no discretion to do common sense things that benefited passengers, even if it resulted in a departure a few minutes late.
So, what's the solution? I think it's to include well-thought-out incentives, but with a bias toward incremental or marginal milestones, instead of big cliffs.
Things like 50 percent of the sales bonus at the 50 percent mark, with 10 percent steps above that. Or else, anchoring bonuses to the statistics someone puts out on average, as opposed to the one-off milestone.
In the end, it didn't really matter for Brady and the Bucs. But, repeat this kind of scenario over and over -- with many salespeople, many drivers, many airplane pilots and customers -- and you can see how it ultimately poses a risk.
This is why I like looking at sports for leadership and business lessons. Things are often so transparent, numerical, and transferrable. It's also why I wrote at length about Brady's other leadership lessons in my free e-book, Tom Brady Always Wins: 10 Success Lessons From the GOAT.
It's due for an update. But maybe I'll wait until after we see whether Brady can lead the Buccaneers to a second consecutive Super Bowl, first. How's that for an incentive?