Team captain Featured

8:00pm EDT June 29, 2006
At the age of 17, Jim Irsay was well on his way to becoming a leader of the Baltimore Colts, the NFL team his father had bought four years earlier and would eventually relocate to Indianapolis.

“It was a moment that connected my youth with the future,” Irsay says. “My dad went in the locker room after the game and took (then head coach) Ted Marchibroda to the woodshed — basically firing him and Ted resigning in front of the team. Bedlam broke out.”

The young Irsay felt compelled to mollify the difficult situation.

“It was almost like your big brothers getting in a fight with your dad,” he says. “There was a lot of yelling and high emotions. I left the locker room and walked out onto the empty field. I just had a calling, a calling to leadership where something in you says, ‘How can I stand up to make this situation better?’”

A few minutes later, he walked onto the team bus.

“I apologized for my dad’s actions and tried to mend the fences,” he says. “I started crying, breaking down a little bit from the pressure of the moment. Ted Marchibroda got up and said, ‘It’s OK, Jimmy, you should go with your dad. It’s going to be fine.’ It was hard; I was tearful, but it was a calling. You hear that calling and you don’t shy away from it.”

Irsay felt something needed to be done and mustered the courage to be a leader on that day.

“Courage is not the absence of fear,” Irsay says. “Courage is being fearful and still doing the right thing. A lot of people think when you’re courageous, you’re fearless, and you’re not. It’s somehow mustering the mettle and having faith deep inside you that you’re willing to stand in those tough storms that blow.”

Irsay makes a distinction between being fearful and showing fear.

“It’s very important: You can’t be a leader and wear a crown of fear,” he says. “Fear is not a good thing. Caution is a good thing.

“People become very fearful when there is a lot of money at stake. Besides your life being on the line, money is right up there. You have to (lead an organization) as a team, as a partnership. You don’t control as much as you think you control.

“A lot of people would like to think that they have this mastery, control over things. The term ‘self-made-man’ is one of the most spiritually arrogant statements anyone can ever make.”

When his father bought the team when he was 12, Irsay knew what he was going to be when he grew up. But that day on the team bus is when everyone else knew it, too.

“They were always very fond of me and looked after me and mentored me as a younger brother,” Irsay says of the players and coaches. “It was a maturation process they could see before their eyes. They didn’t expect me, at 17 years old, to get up before them and address them. That had an impact.”

Irsay began training for the leadership role at the feet of his father and other team executives, moving through nearly every level of the organization. He gained insight and experience and became CEO and sole owner of the franchise when his father passed away in 1997.

At an age when other owners are just coming into the league, Irsay, now 47, has spent 35 years learning about, building and running a National Football League organization. He has learned a thing or two along the way about leadership, success and building a winning organization.

Listening skills
Whether it’s been dealing with poor-performing teams or supporting members of the Colts family during difficult times, Irsay has honed his innate leadership skills by learning from the experience of others.

“I asked a million questions,” he says. “You have to listen and be open-minded and absorb what people who have been there can share with you. I still do this; I take a little bit from everyone.

“I was going to owners’ meetings and observing my dad and all the other owners at a very young age. That was such a big benefit for me. I was keen to observe and absorb the type of lessons that were to be learned in the early part of the journey. It’s awfully hard for some guys when they’re 55, 60, 65 years old, and all of a sudden they come into the NFL. It’s very different.”

One thing that never changes, though, is the responsibility an executive has to employees.

“People are very intuitive and have their antennas up (and pointed) toward the boss, the CEO,” Irsay says. “You’re always being observed and always on the radar screen of others. You can’t mandate leadership. For people to respect you and really follow you with their hearts and not just because you sign their checks is critical.

“Your footsteps have to do more talking than your words. People get a keen sense of what kind of person you are and where you’re heart is at and those sorts of thing. There are a lot of individual moments where you have a chance to engage people that work for you, and they have a chance to connect with you.”

Irsay’s long history with the organization has given him ample time to learn to connect with its member. Where other CEOs provide sympathy, Irsay offers empathy.

“I understand what the business office is going through under certain stressful times,” he says. “I understand what the equipment manager is dealing with if it’s a terribly rainy day and he has to deal with four different types of cleats for players.

“I understand the pressures on all the scouts during draft times because I was one of those people; I did that job.”

Getting the right people
Irsay does not shy away from the spotlight and takes responsibility for building the organization, but he knows he can’t do it alone.

“It’s really critical that a leader understands how to surround himself with the best people and not look over his shoulder [concerned] that this person will get too much credit,” Irsay says.

Once he identifies the best candidate available, Irsay goes after the person.

“I don’t like a lot of question marks,” Irsay says. “You can’t always come up with that individual. If you like someone, you’d better get him. Forget about how much it costs. You’d better be aggressive, and you’d better get that person if he’s going to be a key player in your organization.

“People set certain boundaries in terms of ‘How aggressive are we going to be?’ Sometimes they don’t go in with the mentality of, ‘I’m hiring this guy, and that’s it, and I’m going to figure out a way to get it done.’ There are not enough good people out there. That is the problem.”

Irsay’s reasoning is simple: If you want a successful organization, you’ve got to find the people who can make it happen.

“Good decisions beget good decisions,” Irsay says. “Bad decisions oftentimes have a ripple effect and domino in the other direction. So, you have to be very careful that you put together the foundation of your organization.”

In 1997, Irsay found the new president of his organization in Bill Polian, who at the time was under contract with the Carolina Panthers. Irsay has known and observed Polian for more than 20 years, and the two worked on the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement when Irsay was the 24-year-old general manager of the Colts.

“He was a multiple executive-of-the-year winner,” says Irsay. “He had built the Bills team and Carolina. I knew I didn’t have to ask myself, ‘Is he good enough to be general manager and president of the team? Does he have the organizational skills to run the draft?’”

Irsay calls Polian and head coach Tony Dungy two of the pillars of his organization, the supports that provide the foundation for the rest of it.

“The critical pillars — you have to get it right,” he says. “If you don’t, it can lead you down a long track of failures. You can spend a lot of time trying to correct the poor decisions.”

Once you’ve got the right people in place, get out of the way and let them do their jobs.

“Give them room to be creative,” Irsay says. “Always be there to support them and ask them the difficult questions to play devil’s advocate. That part of leadership is essential.”

But you can only do that with the right kind of people, those who have a passion for what they do.

“What I try to look for is someone who has a real passion for the job,” Irsay says. “I want someone who is extremely enthusiastic and motivated to come to work, that they understand working in the National Football League really is a privilege, and you have a chance to be part of the greatest game and be part of something that is so important and so loved by so many people in this country.”

During his time with the Colts, Irsay has had ample opportunity to learn not just from executives in the organization but from other owners around the league. But no matter what executives pick up as they travel up the corporate ladder, Irsay says there are certain innate qualities of leadership that can’t be learned.

“It’s something that you’re born with,” he says. “As we’re searching for a new commissioner now, these questions of what you look for do come up. Intelligence and experience, combined with humility, can equal wisdom. The key ingredient is humility. The greatest leaders are the ones that are vulnerable, the ones that are humble.”

Leaders must take their egos out of the equation.

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. Humility is not thinking less of oneself; it’s thinking about oneself less. People are very intuitive. They’re very tuned in to who the boss is more than you can possibly know. Whatever your true colors are, they’re going to come out.”

Irsay looks at it as a servant leadership approach. He cites outgoing NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as an example.

“His interest was always in the interest of the game and of the owners and not his agenda,” Irsay says. “Leaders must remember that they are trusted servants.”

Many executives make the mistake of confusing leadership with domination.

“I don’t believe in that,” Irsay says. “You’re serving others with your skills and your leadership, and you can’t forget that.”

Part of that is remembering that employees are more than their jobs.

“I’m a very spiritual person, and that’s the most honorable aspect of human interaction,” Irsay says. “It’s important to me to know if someone’s father or mother is ill, or if there is an issue with the child of one of our children’s families or any of those things. It’s a family-type atmosphere that I like to have.

“This is a second-generation family business. It’s a company I own 100 percent of and is private. It’s very important to me that people feel that spirit of family in our organization.”

Besides succeeding on the field, the team that was valued at $227 million in 1998, a year after Irsay took over, was valued at $715 million last year, according to Forbes magazine.

As a child and a young man, Irsay learned his leadership lessons by watching and listening to others. Even now, he is still one of the younger owners in the league and is at a stage where he can provide a new generation of owners with some advice.

“Elder statesmen in the world of business and life are extremely important,” he says. “When you’re younger, you don’t understand that as much. You don’t realize what that experience means. You’re as smart — maybe smarter — you have a lot of energy, but you just don’t realize what the experience factor does mean.”

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