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Drafting Ideal Team Players

By Pat Lencioni - April 2016

Todayis the beginning of the NFL Draft, professional football’s annual hiring extravaganza. It has become something of an obsession for NFL fans, and even for people who simply enjoy the idea of hiring and strategy.

I understand the fascination: teams spend months assessing a finite pool of applicants, measuring their height, weight, speed, vertical jump, hand size (yes, that’s measured), and analyzing their statistical performance in college. After finally having a chance to interview the players, they then have to make a decision about which of them are worthy of multi-million dollar investments.

One thing that makes the draft process so entertaining is the unreliability of it all. Every year there are colossal “busts,” players who get drafted very early and get paid lots and lots of money, only to turn out to be under-performers or problems for their teams. And then there are draft “steals,” players who get drafted very late, or sometimes not at all, and go on to become incredible assets to their teams.

Perhaps the single biggest factor that NFL executives underestimate in selecting players is not knowing how well they’ll fit into a team. A guy with great talent who doesn’t “play well with others” is always less valuable in the long run than a mid-level talent who knows how to fit into a team and contribute accordingly. So how can leaders, in sports or business or any other endeavor, know that the people they’re hiring are going to be good team players? After twenty years of trial and error, I think I’ve found the answer to that question, and it’s the subject of my new book,The Ideal Team Player.

Great team players share three common virtues or characteristics. They are humble, hungry and smart. I realize that each of those virtues sound simple at first glance, but there are important nuances in the way those terms are defined relative to teamwork. For instance, being smart is not about intelligence, but rather common sense in dealing with people. And it’s critical to understand that if even one of the virtues is missing in a candidate in a significant way, there are going to be problems for the team that hires him.

Let’s consider two quarterbacks who were drafted two years ago in the NFL: Johnny Manziel, picked 22nd overall, and Teddy Bridgewater, taken ten picks later with the 32nd pick. Both players had outstanding college careers, and possess dynamic personalities and intelligence. But they had physical and technical differences. Manziel was faster, Bridgewater was taller. Oddly enough, scouts became concerned that Bridgewater had smaller hands than the prototypical quarterback, and after one slightly shaky try-out, Bridgewater’s stock fell below Manziel’s.

Fast-forward two years. Bridgewater is a rising star for the Minnesota Vikings, while Manziel has already been released by the Cleveland Browns, something almost unheard of for a first round pick. The question is, could the humble, hungry, smart model have helped teams make better decisions? I’m convinced that it could have.

In terms of humility, Manziel was known and, unfortunately, is still known to be an extremely cocky, self-oriented player, calling attention to himself in touchdown celebrations and off-field antics. Bridgewater was all about his team, even refusing to let his school promote him as a Heisman Trophy candidate because he didn’t want his teammates to think he believed he was better than them. As for hunger, Manziel was known for his partying in the off-season, and even during the season, while Bridgewater studied film voraciously and talked about pursuing perfection in his technical abilities. In terms of being smart interpersonally, both Manziel and Bridgewater were charismatic young men who seemed to know how to get along with teammates.

So, when measured against the three virtues, Bridgewater was three-for-three, and qualified as an ideal team player. Manziel was interpersonally smart, but lacked humility and hunger in a significant way, making him what I call a “charmer.” He knows how to say and do things to convince people that he cares about the team and will work hard, but his ability to follow through on either of those promises is significantly limited.

Had the people in Cleveland applied this simple approach in their hiring, they would have avoided wasting millions of dollars. More importantly, they wouldn’t have lost two years of investment in time and energy trying to get an employee to be something that every indication said he was not.

For teams getting ready to pick their next crop of new employees in the draft, I would advise them to add humble, hungry and smart to their selection criteria, and to move it up the board a little higher than hand size.