Antonio Brown Delivers a Gut Punch to ‘Servant’ Leadership Practitioners!

Sean McCormick
6 min readJan 7, 2019

The recent antics by Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown have left me no choice but to award him my ‘Narcissistic Purveyor of the Year.’

Narcissistic behavior — derived from the Greek Mythology’s Narcissus, a youth with such stunning beauty he fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water — and winning football are polar opposites. It’s like pouring oil and vinegar into a bottle. Shaking the bottle with vigor, you’ll create a mixture lasting long enough to use the combo on your salad but eventually the particles separate into layers. Brown’s on-field talent is undeniable. His ego takes over at the most inopportune times, akin to a person suffering from gout. Instead of an excess of uric acid, however, Brown suffers from an exaggerated sense of self-importance!

Don’t Hold the ‘Mayo!’ Clinic, that is…

Exaggerated sense of self-importance? That’s directly from the Mayo Clinic’s symptoms list for persons suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. Second on the list is having a sense of entitlement and requiring constant, excessive admiration. Brown threw a hissy-fit when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wanted to run a play again in practice. He then refused to go through the MRI procedure for a purported knee injury. Brown’s narcissistic Trifecta was completed when he skipped practice the rest of the week. The All-Pro receiver showed up at Heinz Field on the last Sunday of the season and nonchalantly assumed he would be allowed against the Cincinnati Bengals. Entitlement? Excessive admiration? Anyone? Anyone? (Please read in your best Ben Stein voice.)

Steelers tight end Jesse James compares the 2018 team to the Kardashians. “We were in the front of the ticker on ESPN too much for just reasons that weren’t related to football,” said in a post season interview. True, but instead of taking the reality show road I think it better we make a right turn into the land of leadership — Servant Leadership. A few years ago I wrote an article for American Football Monthly magazine on the topic of ‘coaching’ the prima donna athlete. I compared two leadership beliefs: Servant Leadership and Transformational Leadership.

Servant Leadership

The practice of servant leadership, while continually gaining momentum among today’s coaches and corporate leaders as it is seen as a way to positively address the leadership issues involving the millennial generation, actually finds it’s beginnings in 1970. Robert Greenleaf published an essay on the subject and is credited with originating the practice. Servant leadership is best described as a style where the leader focuses on the needs and desires of team members. It’s ‘serving’ the rank-and-file first, and then leading them. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success can be closely aligned to this leadership style. Wooden definitely emphasized to his teams the value of working together and being in ‘service to others.

Many will say servant leadership by a coach means being soft,or being labeled what many coaches despise, a player’s coach. If you are old enough to remember UCLA’s Wooden I doubt you would say the multiple NCAA championship coach was soft on his players. Wooden was also staunch in his beliefs and was not one to deviate from them. Kareem Abdul Jabbar credits Wooden with understanding how to turn failure into success by learning from his mistakes. As Wooden said, “Ability may get your to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has often been described as the cringe-worthy ‘player’s coach.’ His leadership style definitely leans toward the servant mode as he does seek to discover the needs and desires of his players. What is missing is his ability to make all the players understand the full benefits of servant leadership. If it’s not accepted into the mindset of every player, there will be break downs in communication. In coaching lingo, there has to be a Buy-In by everyone in order to succeed. One or more players on the team must create the sense of accountability which is to be adhered by all teammates.

When Tomlin was hired, the Steelers had a wide receiver with such a mindset. Hines Ward, albeit once during preseason contract negotiations, never let his ego interfere with winning football games. Ward was on the Steelers roster along side Brown for two seasons. It’s a pretty good guess no ‘winning is all that counts’ talks ever registered in Brown’s narcissistic-laden brain. Caring about the Steelers winning would be spoken by Brown unless the spotlight was on another player’s game performance. An integral part of servant leadership involved equality and respect for everyone. What part of going Live on Facebook while the head coach is giving a post-game talk after a playoff win shows respect?

Injecting Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership, used first in 1978 by James MacGregor Burns to describe political leadership practices, is developing leaders out of followers by invoking positive change. Component qualities of the transformational leader include having a charismatic influence (vision, ability to share risks, showing respect and integrity), enacting motivation through effective communication and having a general sense of rationality coupled with strong problem solving skills. Additionally, the transformational leader is a listener whom pays attention to each person, mentoring and eventually encouraging followers to initiate action without the leader’s direct involvement.

No one questions Tomlin’s charismatic approach to the game but sorely missing seems to be his problem solving skills when it comes to team distractions. There is an article appearing in a 2011 publication of the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology which could assist Tomlin with this apparent leadership weakness.

The Role of Athlete Narcissism in Moderating the Relationship Between Coaches’ Transformational Leader Behaviors and Athlete Motivation, provided research which determined the narcissism levels of athletes had a direct effect on the success of leadership methods used by coaches. The study concludes leadership inspiration tactics had less of a performance effect on athletes registering higher on the narcissism scale. Even though the study involved athletes of high school and early college ages, the results can easily translate to the childish behavior of Brown and many other professional athletes.

Today’s NFL Player

An article appearing in the Journal of Applied Psychology which focused on the results of a study conducted in 2000, reported ‘trust in leadership’ by players translates into replacing personal motives with team-oriented goals.

Today’s athletes are willing to work toward team success as long as they believe their personal reasons for playing are being met. I believe this is an area where Tomlin focused but was just not successful, particularly with Brown. As stated in the study results, many coaches take themselves out of the equation by actions perceived by the player as not being helpful. For example, coaches whom have poor organizational skills or are visibly unable to handle coaching duties at critical times during a game are less likely to accomplish an overall ‘team’ focus. Organizational skills aren’t Tomlin’s or any other successful NFL head coach’s problem, but what about Tomlin’s poor clock management skills or self-reliance making a ‘coaching challenge?’

While all the psychological studies offer tips on success, no one doubts it’s much easier to deal with the prima donna athlete at lower levels due to the money factor. Team owners want to see the ROI (Return on Investment) from the multi-million dollar contracts players sign. Plainly, this hasn’t been the case with the Steelers and Brown. Astronomic offensive stats aren’t the only determining factor in winning Super Bowls, and winning championships have and always will be the desired result of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. As four-time Super Bowl winning coach Chuck Noll once said, “Everyone’s job is important, but no one is indispensable.”



Sean McCormick

Turning the ‘complex’ into the ‘understandable!’ In Coaching & Leadership there is one constant — WRITING!