Strategic Leadership Skills Required: NFL Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott

Sean McDermott
Sean McDermott

Neurosurgeons often find themselves leading a strong, qualified group of professionals with their own expertise, experience, and styles of practice and communication. Leading a diverse team can be a challenge, and few people are as familiar with this balancing act as a coach of a professional football team. We’re honored to have Buffalo Bills coach, Sean McDermott, share his insight into making a large group of talented and unique individuals work together for success.

Sean McDermott Bills press conference

On January 11, 2017, the Buffalo Bills named McDermott the 20th head coach in team history. Coach McDermott took time to expand on his views on leadership in a Q & A conducted by Chris Brown of for the Congress Quarterly.

Q: What makes a successful leader?

SM: A successful leader is one who may not have the success or get the results all the time, but they know they’re doing the right things to set themselves and the team up for success— maybe not now, but down the road. I feel that’s huge, in terms of leadership.

Q: What is the most important component of leadership?

SM: Self-awareness. Knowing yourself is highly important to leading people. For me, it’s knowing when I’m on edge. I have a tendency to blow up, and being able to manage that and knowing when I need a workout to clear my mind are important from a leadership standpoint.

Q: How does one lead a team of varied personalities, with individual goals and ambitions that might extend beyond what’s best for the team?

SM: Everyone has to understand we all win when the team wins first, and we all are here to make each other better. When we do that and take that type of approach, the team benefits.

Q: How do you lead those who are considered leaders of their peers?

SM: As a leader of people, developing leaders is an important quality for our football team. I take opportunities to find different points in time to point out things to our leaders of where they really did well and really gave us the standard we were looking for from a leadership standpoint, and other times when there were opportunities to lead in a different way.

So within the context of the vision of the standard, we celebrate when we get what we’re looking for and correct in the context when we don’t. That’s important.

Q: How do you define and describe leadership from a personal perspective?

SM: Leadership begins with leading by example. After that, it starts with shaping and crafting a vision, and building alignment around it and championing the execution of that vision on a daily basis.

Q: In what ways has your leadership style changed or evolved over the years?

SM: It has changed a lot. I used to think just the term “leadership” was something you had or you didn’t. It was something born in you. I think that’s still true to a point, but I think leadership can be developed. You have to develop the leader within. I’ve experienced that first hand in the different places I’ve been.

I’ve cultivated my own leadership skills by investing in a leadership coach. I read, and I get online and find best practices from other leaders of other teams, other organizations, other businesses, and just spend time on it. I’m intrigued by leadership, but I don’t think you ever know everything there is to know about it.

Q: Is there a noted difference in leading Millennials, or are the principles the same?

SM: I think the core principles of leadership remain the same, yet the details of it change because you’re leading a different age of people. This includes positive reinforcement, which was something I didn’t know a whole lot about. When I was growing up, it was constructive criticism. With Millennials, it’s got to be the sandwich technique: Positive, negative, and positive. I think they benefit more from that these days than the other way around.