It's important for leaders to be consistent, authentic and inspiring. And while it's just as important to set a strong leadership example when things are going well, leaders fully reveal themselves when guiding a team through adversity.
A great example comes from the National Football League and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Earlier this month, the Patriots lost a nationally televised game to the Houston Texans. In particular, Brady and the offense gave a poor performance, struggling throughout the contest and falling behind 21-3 at one point.
The Patriots' issues came to the forefront when cameras caught Brady yelling at his wide receivers on the sideline. The quarterback seemed frustrated with his pass-catchers, many of whom are either rookies or signed with New England early this year. Commentators noticed that the receivers were not running their routes correctly.
So it was surprising when Brady, in his weekly interview with a Boston radio station a few days later, was very complementary of his receivers. Brady told WEEI, "Guys are doing the best they can do in my belief. We're working hard and trying to do the right thing, and sometimes it's been good. Other times, we obviously still have work we still have to do."
Brady demonstrated a valuable leadership lesson. Though Brady's frustration with his receivers was a news story after the Sunday night loss, he alleviated the tension by publicly praising his teammates and recognizing their progress. Brady demonstrated three things every leader needs to know about leading a team through adversity.
Criticize privately, not publicly.
While Brady drew attention for yelling at his teammates during the game, he was attempting to have a private moment with his receivers that was caught due to the public nature of televised football. There is a difference between addressing performance issues in the moment and throwing your team under the bus in public.
Brady's public support of his teammates in his radio interview showed that while he wants them to play better, he does not shift accountability to others for the outcome.
Though most business leaders aren't giving media interviews every week, this is still a valuable guideline. If a leader has an employee who makes a mistake or isn't performing well, critiquing that employee in an all-company meeting, or criticizing them specifically in a memo, never makes things better. Not only will it damage trust with the employee, but it will create a culture of fear in the business.
It's better to critique in a one-on-one conversation, giving you the chance to provide full context for your feedback, let the employee respond and discuss a plan for going forward. This strategy goes a long way in creating an environment of psychological safety and trust.
Set the bar high.
Great organizations have high standards and don't shy away from them. However, they support and invest in each person on the team to help them reach those goals.
At our company, Acceleration Partners, we consistently focus on training our employees holistically, giving them the resources and training they need to improve both personally and professionally. If a team member can reach new heights outside of work, we generally see that they are more engaged and determined to raise their game at work as well.
It's clear from his sideline coaching that Brady demands a lot from his teammates, but no more than he expects from himself. He clarified that his criticism wasn't an attempt to humiliate his teammates--he believed they could all do better and was pushing for them to reach a higher level.
Move on from failure.
A huge part of leadership is moving on from failure and few organizations do this better than the Patriots. Brady and head coach Bill Belichick set this tone by always looking forward to the next challenge, rather than dwelling on the past.
Brady again demonstrated this in his interview. Instead of focusing on the team's loss to Houston, Brady shifted the conversation away from how the team failed and instead focused on what they would do to get better over the rest of the season.
Even the best leaders and organizations face challenges. While Brady is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football, he and the team are not immune to poor performances. But his recent challenges, and the way he has guided the Patriots through that adversity, demonstrates strategies any leader can use to get their team into the endzone.