vice chairman, global sector leader, sports
This Week in Leadership
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For casual fans, the key matchup in this Sunday’s NFL Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is between the quarterbacks: one a young superstar who may be the greatest in the game today, and another looking to cement his career as the most successful of all time. But on the sidelines may be a far more critical dual—between two head coaches whose colliding styles could decide the outcome.
Meet Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs and Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At 62 years old, Reid is a sustained builder of winning culture. He spent seven years with the Packers, 13 with the Eagles as head coach, and the last eight with the Chiefs, winning a Super Bowl in 2020. By contrast, Arians, 68, is a turnaround artist who has helped recast and rebuild the rosters of teams like the Indianapolis Colts, the Arizona Cardinals, and the Bucs back into championship contenders in short order.
Jed Hughes, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and global sector leader for the firm’s Sports practice, has unique knowledge on both coaches—he had partnered with the teams’ owners to lead the hiring of Reid and Arians their current roles. “Both coaches approach leadership differently, and both have had tremendous success,” Hughes says. To be sure, much of that success comes from the traits they share. But we uncovered three distinctive leadership characteristics that define each. Given how evenly matched the two teams are, one of these traits may just end up deciding the victor of this Sunday’s championship game.
Kansas City Chiefs: Andy Reid
In leadership parlance, Reid is what would be called an active learner. One of his first jobs, with the Packers (the closest thing to an academy company in the NFL), was as a special assistant charged with studying film while also coaching the offensive line and tight ends. In doing so, he learned how a cohesive offense worked together as a group, helping shape the offensive philosophy he would later implement in Philadelphia and Kansas City. Reid adapts schemes to his players’ skills rather than having players fit the coach’s system. He has always been known for his innovation and creativity in calling plays but has taken it to another level with the Chiefs. With the otherworldly talent of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the work of several elite receivers, Reid has been able to draw up schemes from the furthest reaches of football and make them work in the NFL. The players are excited and stay motivated each week to see the individualized plays he installs just for them.
When Reid joined the Chiefs in 2013, the team had just gone through a tough front-office transition and the tragic suicide of one of their players. One of the first things he did was walk the halls and build relationships with everyone, from the owner, Clark Hunt, with whom he built an amazing rapport, to the business operations personnel to the field crew. He distributed leaflets outlining his cultural philosophy of togetherness and his belief that the values of the owners, coaches, and players must be aligned to succeed. “He understands the critical value of organizational alignment,” says Hughes, “and used his personality and credibility to unite and engage all parts of the team, from the business side to the front office to the football side.”
After the Chiefs won the AFC Championship, Reid became a meme on social media for using a selfie stick and a digital camera to film the team, celebrating like a proud dad. To be sure, Reid is seen as a father figure by his players, someone they can lean on for advice on and off the field. “He cares about the challenges they go through and the short careers they have. And he puts them in a position to succeed and make the most money they can while they are playing,” says Hughes. Reid takes the same approach with his younger coaches as well; his coaching tree, former assistants of his that have gone on to be head coaches at other teams, is one of the best and most successful in the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians
No Fear of Failure
Arians learned his philosophy to coaching—and life—while working in a dive bar in Blacksburg, Virginia. The catchy rhyme he learned from a fellow bartender, “no risk it, no biscuit,” underscores Arians’s belief that you can’t succeed if you don’t take chances and possess the ability to learn through failure. It’s basically the “move fast and break things” ethos of tech leaders applied to football. “You don’t go from getting fired as the head coach of Temple to building yourself back up to the head coach of a Super Bowl team without bringing a high level of grit, determination, and perseverance. Bruce’s players respect his guts and aggressiveness and willingness to take the heat if the risks don’t pay off,” says Hughes.
Authenticity and Transparency
If Reid is a father figure to his players, Arians is the big brother to his, says Hughes. In terms of style, Arians would be classified as the charismatic leader, bringing an enthusiasm, confidence, and swagger that players identify with. “He has a natural ability to relate to his players on their level, which has been a critical component of his success,” says Hughes. To be sure, Arians is known to socialize with his players, and has grown into the NFL’s “quarterback whisperer” because of the special relationship he has with them. Of his QBs, Arians has said, “They have to be a member of my family. We have to care for one another. It’s all about family, family, family.” Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, who didn’t have a warm relationship with his former coach Bill Belichick, praised Arians’s ability to build relationships with his players, saying, “Everyone has a great affection for him. He’s just got a great way of communicating effectively with everybody around here.”
Tolerance for Ambiguity
Before Arians’s arrival, the Bucs franchise was in disarray, having gone through several general managers and four coaches in 10 years. In many ways, Arians was exactly what the team needed—a coach completely comfortable with uncertainty and a proven track record of adapting to and transforming cultures. His career before being named Tampa Bay’s head coach included more than a dozen jobs with 14 different teams across college and the NFL. “His ability to quickly affect change and work through organizational ambiguity has been a hallmark of his success,” says Hughes. And nowhere was that more evident than this season, with his having to incorporate a new QB with no training camp due to COVID-19 and then dealing with the day-to-day uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic. The start of the season had its ups and downs as Arians had to meld his philosophy and style with Brady’s. Once it synthesized, it became reciprocal and cohesive, carrying over to the entire team, offense and defense.