Toxic Leadership Strategies from Bill Belichick

I’m having a rough year as a sports fan. And to put the final nail in the coffin on a bad sports season, my least favorite team in all professional sports, the New England Patriots, have once again found their way into the Super Bowl. I want to make one thing clear: I have no problems with the Patriots winning. For years, they have been consistently one of the top teams in the NFL. They have absolutely dominated their division and the AFC.

In over twenty years as a head coach Bill Belichick is 211-109 (that’s a 70% win percentage) and is 20-8 in the playoffs. Sunday will be his sixth trip to the Super Bowl as the Patriots’ head coach, and he’s won three of them. In total, he’s been part of five Super Bowl Champions as either a head coach or assistant coach. Belichick has gone to six conference championships and has 14 division titles. Those are, for sure, Hall of Fame numbers.

I respect the Patriots’ success and their constant quest for excellence. But based on the string of scandals over the years, and the win-at-no-cost attitude, I just have trouble rooting for them. And it got me thinking: for leaders across all sectors, their performance and attitude as an organization provides us some good insights on what not to do as leaders.

So before I dive into the strategies to avoid as a leader, here’s a few case studies on what the Patriots have done over the years, and what leaders can learn from these situations.

Case Number 1: SpyGate

You might remember how the Patriots were caught videotaping opposing teams to learn signals and play calls, gaining a competitive advantage on the field. After a lengthy investigation, in 2007, Commissioner Goodell fined Bill Belichick and the Patriots a total of $750,000 and took away a first-round draft pick.

What we learn

First, the Patriots are a good enough team, and Belichick is an amazing game strategist, they had no reason to steal signals from teams. They’d be just as good without the competitive advantage. The lesson here is to trust yourself and your team. And additionally, making enemies is never a good thing.

Case Number 2: DeflateGate

So the NFL is still investigating, but the Patriots’ track record doesn’t bode well, and I have a hard time giving them the benefit of the doubt. The Patriots have been accused of taking the air out footballs, making it easier to pass, catch and reduce the likelihood of a fumble. No reaction yet from the NFL, but rumors are swirling that the penalty will be significant, at least on par with SpyGate.

What we learn

What we learn is that groupthink could be a real problem within the Patriots organization. We don’t have all the details, but now the culture has spiraled out of control around attempting to gain a competitive advantage, no matter what. As leaders, we need to cautious of groupthink, and its ramifications.

Case Number 3: Waived a player on Thanksgiving

In the midst of Thanksgiving dinner, the notorious unsentimental Bill Belichick cut special teams player Don Jones. To be fair, the 49ers and Colts also cut players on Thanksgiving. But, Belichick has also cut players on the eve of the season.

What we learn

Here we learn again that empathy is important. It’s critcal to care genuinely for your colleagues and employees. Cutting someone during a holiday, major life crisis and not trying to work with the employee first is just low class. I’ll explain this a bit more below.

Bringing it All Together

There are plenty of other examples. We could bring up the Tuck Rule, deceptive play calling, or even Belichick and how he treats the media. So below, I quickly outline the strategies to avoid as leaders, provide you with another “Belichick Moment” and some quick tactics to avoid being a toxic leader.

1. Cheating and cutting corners

The Belichick Moment: SpyGate.

The SpyGate example was an attempt to obtain information illegally to have a competitive advantage. Because you’re a public servant and not living in Bill Belichick’s warped world absent of morality, this is an easy one to avoid. Here’s a few ways:

  • Work to build trust across your team
  • Lead by example and always take the high road
  • Don’t shy away from hard conversations

2. Not accepting responsibility

The Belichick Moment: SpyGate, DeflateGate, numerous press conferences.

Belichick always defers blame, or gives the media a vague, meaningless response. So what can you do to avoid this? This is something we all learned in kindergarten, but Belichick must have missed class that day, so here are some thoughts:

  • Own your mistakes, take responsibility for your actions
  • Don’t throw your team under the bus
  • Make sure to design methods of accountability

3. Winning at any cost

The Belichick Moment(s): Please – repeated behaviors and too many to name.

As public servants, you’re blessed with working towards a much more important mission than winning a Super Bowl. And as public servants, you want to do it the right way. So here’s what you can do to keep your morale compass facing North:

  • Remind your team of the important work you do
  • Truly and deeply care about your work as a public servant
  • Just do the right thing, and always pause and consider your actions in the larger context of what it means to be a public servant and to work for government

4. Lacking empathy

The Belichick Moment: Cutting Don Jones on Thanksgiving.

Belichick has cut players on Thanksgiving, the night before the start of the season and likely at any time he deems appropriate to win the next game. It’s all part of the win-at-all-costs approach Belichick has taken. These actions have led to Belichick lacking one of the most important traits of a leader: empathy. It’s a hard skill to develop, but here’s a starting point:

  • Build relationships with employees
  • Listen to challenges, offer solutions
  • Be supportive and don’t be dismissive of attitudes

5. Dressing unprofessionally for major events

The Belichick Moment: Most Sunday afternoons wearing his sweatshirt with sleeves cut off

His cutoff sweatshirts are ridiculous. I just don’t get it. But for leaders, just be sure that you are showing proper respect and dressed appropriately.

  • Dress appropriately for the event
  • If unsure, it’s better to be over dressed
  • Under no circumstances should you cut the sleeves off your sweatshirt

6. Not learning your lesson

The Belichick Moment: Numerous, namely DeflateGate.

Belichick now has a fairly lengthy track record of deception and attempts to gain an unfair advantage. He’s been punished by the NFL, and will likely be again for DeflateGate. So as a leader, part of your growth must be understanding what you did wrong, and your errors.

  • Commit to continual improvement
  • Learn from failures, make appropriate changes
  • Don’t hide from mistakes, use them as learning opportunities

7. Lack of respect

The Belichick Moment: “They both wear number 12,” in response to a reporter when asked about comparisons between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

There’s no reason to be disrespectful to people who are looking to learn from you. If you have a colleague or coworker who wants to learn about a project, your career or is looking for some advice, always give them the respect they deserve.

  • Make time to help colleagues out
  • When appropriate, make introductions
  • Offer alternatives if don’t know an answer or unable to help

So what’s the lesson learned here? There is a right way to win. So much about leadership extends beyond just the outcome and the goal. In reality, a leader can control very little about the outcomes of a project. But what they can do is empower the various components that make up the whole, being strategic and knowing what leadership tools to deploy to achieve organizational goals. Is that easy to do? Of course not, but it’s essential to being an effective leader.

Yes, you can achieve goals through the toxic Bill Belichick model, but you shouldn’t. And if that’s your game plan, be sure to root for the Patriots this weekend.


 Photo credit: FlickR Creative Commons, Kieth Allison

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Matthew Garlipp

Tell us how you really feel, Pat!

This was a very creative way to transform negative stories into positive lessons. Great post!


Belichick looks pretty well dressed in the photo you have posted above for the article. I don’t see the cutoff sweat shirt. Anyway, I can’t tell you how tiring it is to see people use these opportunities to kick a person when they are down. Has the New England Patriots coach made mistakes in the past…yes. Have he been held accountable and paid for his mistakes….yes. Have other NFL players and coaches made mistakes… you better believe they have. Have they all paid for their mistakes… some have and some haven’t. You should include in your lessons learned the need to forgive and move on. Stop being a hater and let it go. Enjoy the Superbowl this Sunday and let it go. Win or lose… I will still like the Patriots. They bring excitement and quality to the game of football. Go PATs!!!

Katrin Johnson

Now that we know what not to do, I look forward to an article on incorporating Pete Carroll’s coaching style into our managerial process. Go Hawks!


You are trying to teach lessons through a one-coach (who you clearly don’t respect )-fits-all approach and some of your statements have not been validated or are incorrect.

When confronted about Spygate, the Pats (and other teams) admitted to it. DeflateGate – Pats staff has repeatedly claimed their innocence and is still under investigation. Don’t use Belichick / DeflateGate to teach 2 of your 7 lessons. The officials ruled the Tuck rule legal – not Belichick. Empathy … there’s no crying in baseball … or football. It’s a business.

What you failed to mention is that none of the Pats players are in the media mouthing off or making obscene gestures and getting fined like other teams’ players. They don’t step on players when getting up from a tackle. There are no late hits or taunting. Belichick won’t stand for that. Jonas Gray scored 4 TDs in one game, showed up late to practice 3 days later, and was benched for the next game. If Marshawn Lynch was a Patriot, he would no-doubt be watching the Super Bowl from the bench. There are several life lessons to be learned here, with some defying your Belichick’s win-at-all-cost theory.

The most heinous act by a coach in recent years was the Saints’ Bountygate. Players got paid bonuses to knock players out of the game and additional money if they landed in the hospital. THAT is “toxic leadership.”

Tammy Seleski

Personally, I respect and share many of the author’s opinions and conclusions in this article. Having said that, a truer account of success and how it is accomplished should be attributed to Coach Vince Lombardi. A story on his lifetime achievements, regarding football, can translate into many positive articles about leadership and how to lead the respectful way!