Emerson Exchange

Go first and lead the way

Former NFL quarterback Tom Flick shared his perspectives on effective leadership, management and innovation with Emerson Exchange attendees.

By Mike Bacidore


The only thing better than winning is leading others to victory. “Winning is great,” said Tom Flick, a former NFL quarterback who delivered the guest keynote address Monday. “It’s an amazing thing. But there’s something better than that—helping other people to win.”

Leading change has more to do with the heart than it does with the head, said Flick, who’d been knocked out five times during his football career. He offered three golden threads in his presentation on leadership in a world of complacency.

1. Leadership is the name of the game. “Our world is overmanaged, but leading is different,” Flick assured.

2. The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack. “Bringing people together lets you jump through opportunities collectively,” he said.

3. Leading change is a process of engaging the head and the heart. “We are fast to use the brain but slow to use the heart,” warned Flick. “Feelings are more influential than thought when it comes to bringing about change,” he suggested.

Quarterbacks are taught to look over the defense and locate danger, explained Flick. The quarterback is the leader of the offensive squad on the field. He holds 65-70 meetings a day, and those meetings last just a few seconds, but it’s the quarterback’s job to lead the other 10 players. “Great leaders and great competitors hate to lose,” said Flick. “Great teams stack one good play on top of another good play on top of another good play.”

Flick recounted a game in which he replaced injured quarterback Joe Theismann and found himself under center and staring across the line of scrimmage at the Pittsburgh Steeler defense. Middle linebacker Jack Lambert pointed a finger straight at him and asked, “Who are you?”

While Lambert’s intent was to intimidate, Flick found it ultimately inspirational. It spurred the questions a great leader should ask: “Who am I? Where am I going? Where am I going to end up? What is life really all about? Great leaders can answer these questions. The people you’re trying to lead want to know if you can lead,” he said.

What motivates you and enables you to lead at a higher level is based on your picture of your future, how you focus your energy and your team’s energy. What is it that you do?

The distinction between leadership and management is increasingly important. “We’ve educated people to become managers,” explained Flick. “Management’s job is taking complexity and making something simple. Management does not move us forward. Its job is keeping things the same.”

Leadership is wholly different, said Flick. “It’s communicating motives and strategy,” he explained. “It isn’t mysterious. It’s not better than management. Nor is it a substitute for it. If management is playing defense, then leadership is playing offense. If management is transactional, then leadership is transformational. Management is keeping things the same. Leadership is about change.”

The two great challenges we face in growing business are complacency and false urgency. “Complacency is contentment with the status quo,” explained Flick. “This is not laziness. It’s not intentional. It isn’t malicious. It creates a ‘stop’ attitude. What’s the point of change? Complacency is based on past success.”

False urgency, on the other hand, is a ramped-up, hair-on-fire, fear-based stop attitude. “When you’re exhausted at the end of the week and realize you accomplished nothing, that’s due to focusing on false urgency,” said Flick.

Comfort zones also cause a stop attitude, but true urgency is a true asset. “People come to work to duck real hazards and seize real opportunities to win that one day,” explained Flick. “This gives us a ‘go’ attitude. If you are truly urgent, there’s a chemical change in your brain to get you on the go side. True urgency looks like focusing on the head and the heart.”

Like winning a football game is based on stacking one winning play on top of another, business success is winning one day at a time, suggested Flick. “Start your morning with no access to anyone else,” he said. “Turn off electronic devices. Create a list of one to three opportunities that you’ll focus on that will ensure you win the day. Then determine a list of one to three dangers or hazards that would prevent you from winning the day.”

A leader’s voice speaks out like a megaphone with hope, optimism and courage. “Words create pictures,” he explained. “When you speak to yourself internally or are trying to communicate something, the words create pictures, which create emotions. Emotions create attitudes, which permit behaviors that create habits. Habits create reality for you and me. Great leaders are very intentional about how they speak.”

If you want to really push frontiers, you need to seize the big opportunities. You can’t make a list of priorities that’s three pages long. Focus on the few big priorities. “If everything is important, then nothing is important,” explained Flick. “We need to be truly urgent. Leading change is the process of connecting the head and the heart. Technology is coming at you with lightning speed. Seize the big opportunities, and use the leader’s voice.”

See yourself as a leader who serves, offered Flick. “Establish strong relationships,” he said. “Consistently take action to help others. The more you help others to get what they want, the more you get what you want. How do we make it easier to lead courageously and seize opportunity? Go first and lead the way.”

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