Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots, takes his team to the Superbowl. (Al Bello/GETTY IMAGES)

This piece is part of a “faceoff” between Tom Brady’s and Eli Manning’s leadership, written by two leadership experts (and football fan rivals) for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Read the piece on Eli Manning here.

The professional quarterback is unquestionably the most important, dominating position in all of sports. He not only handles the ball on almost every offensive down, he also represents the team. He’s the face of the franchise, the persona of the team, the focus of the coverage, the gem of endorsements. When the team wins, he’s the hero (and usually the MVP). When it loses, he’s the goat (and the one whose failure gets scrutinized, sometimes publicly by his own teammates).

But when the quarterback in question is Tom Brady, there is more. Much more.

There is character and determination, grace and honesty. In the words of leadership expert Jim Collins in Good to Great , there is “Level 5 Leadership”.

Such a leader, Collins writes, “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” What better description is there of Tom Brady’s approach to his job, his work, his team mates and his legacy?

By now all sports fans are familiar with the Tom Brady story—how he struggled to get playing time in college, how he was overlooked in the NFL draft until the Patriots took him as the 199th pick in the sixth round, and how he has used those slights and challenges to turn himself into one of the best quarterbacks in the history of professional football. How good is Tom Brady? Before the start of this season, NFL players voted him the best player in the whole league.

But those achievements aren’t what make Tom Brady who he is. That’s not what has taken him from good to great, either as a quarterback or as a leader. What marks him as a role model for leadership is his approach to the game: personal humility and professional will.

What super-star quarterback says point blank on national TV after a playoff game, “Well, I really sucked today”? And particularly a game that the team won! And won to go to the Super Bowl! For the fifth time in 11 years!

And what Super Bowl-bound quarterback contacts his personal coach after the bad playoff game for passing tips, and then pauses from his big game preparations to appeal to donors to give his coach a life-or-death kidney transplant? Tom Brady. Talk about character.

That offhand, post-game self critique tells you all you need to know about Brady’s leadership style. His imprint is on this team, not his ego. He’s never satisfied with his own performance. He knows that he can do better, should do better, has to do better. He also knows that he has to lead by example. If he’s not satisfied with the job he’s doing, no one on the team should be satisfied with their performance. How does a leader improve? Through endless preparation, study, discipline and incremental change. It’s this kind of selfless drive coupled with professional will that not only makes Brady better, and makes the team better, but also sends a message to the younger players, the players who may not be headed to the Hall of Fame, that for the Patriot’s leader, it’s all about the team. 

One of Jim Collins’ favorite leadership words is “discipline,” and it’s no surprise that Tom Brady uses that term as well. Some football fans say that defense wins championships. The truth is, discipline wins championships. Discipline based on preparation and focus yields consistency and success. It builds a winning culture and a reliable way of doing business, whether on a football field or in a company. It generates a shared sense of purpose and a no-nonsense way of approaching any task.

As the Patriots like to say, “The team that wins will be the team that performs the best.” Not necessarily the best team, or the team with the best athletes. The team that wins is the one with the right kind of leadership, with the right kind of preparation, and with the right amount of discipline.

Which is why it is such a constant joy and rare pleasure to be a fan of the New England Patriots with Bill Belichick on the sidelines and Tom Brady at the helm. When you watch them play, you see a team that works hard and demonstrates its unbending will to win. And you also see a team with intelligence and creativity, playing the game with discipline and consistency, and demonstrating an enduring respect for each other and for the game. That’s the best that sports has to offer, and a kind of leadership we can all admire. 

Alan Webber is the cofounder of Fast Company and the author of Rules of Thumb. Follow him at @alanmwebber

Now read:

Why Eli Manning is a better leader than Tom Brady

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