Sean Payton Demonstrates Leadership Weaknesses  

Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton walks past a player at a game. Payton wears a dark blue jacket with the Broncos logo on it, a headset, and a bright orange sun visor, also with the Denver Broncos logo on it. The football player, with his back to the camera, wears a white jersey with the name replaced to read "WEAKNESSES" and their number changed to "2". Payton looks deep in thought, maybe a bit frustrated.

New leaders often inherit troubled organizations. When Sean Payton took over as head coach of the professional US football team, The Denver Broncos, it was a team in distress. Unfortunately, Payton fell prey to the common temptation of attacking the reputation of his predecessors. Payton’s error was an amateur move, reflecting bad boss behavior.

Payton’s bad boss behavior bit him in the ass, a few months later, when the man he mocked soundly defeated his team.

What Happened

After becoming head coach of the Broncos, Sean Payton blasted his predecessor and virtually everyone involved in leading the team, before he arrived. Nathaniel Hackett, the previous head coach, went on to be the Offensive Coordinator (an assistant coach) in The NY Jets football team. The Broncos, now led by Payton, hosted The Jets, with an offense run by Hackett, on Sunday. Hackett and the Jets convincingly beat the bad-boss-behaving Payton and his Broncos, 31-21. 


The timing around Sean Payton’s assault on Hackett went like this…

About Sean Payton

There’s no denying Payton’s coaching success in the NFL. His overall record as a professional head coach includes 153 wins, 93 losses (62% wins at time of publishing) and a Superbowl victory with the New Orleans Saints in 2009. He has earned respect and the right to have his opinions heard in the league. 

NFL Coaching Leadership Principles

The Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership® consolidates dozens of the greatest leadership models and hundreds of attributes into the top 7 principles practiced by the greatest leaders. Therefore, it’s a great tool for assessing the effectiveness of leaders. The 7 principles for assessment are:


Sean Payton’s Leadership Strengths

Mr. Payton’s win record places him as the 22nd most winning coach in NFL history, by percentages. There are only 4, active, head coaches with higher winning percentages. If that were the only measurement of leadership success, he’d be great. However, in leadership, how you achieve results matters. Sean’s strength’s seem to be in the principles of Resolve, Authenticity, and Thoroughness.


When it comes to Resolve, Payton has it in abundance. His hard-driving mentality and focus on results is common among NFL head coaches. When dealing with one of the most physically demanding and mentally challenging workforces in the world, this is an important principle to practice. It’s also one of the most often overlooked principles by servant leadership consultants. 


Like him or not, Sean Payton is who he is. As this incident exemplifies, he’s not going to change how he responds in different situations. This enables his team to know what to expect from the leader. However, this strength can quickly become a weakness if the leader refuses to learn from mistakes. Payton may be walking this strength into a weakness.


The changes Payton plans for the Broncos reflect many facets of the team. His comments to the press suggest nothing is off the table. This attention to detail reflects a strength for Payton in the principle of Thoroughness.

Payton’s Leadership Weaknesses

Nobody is perfect. The spotlight on NFL head coaches can quickly reveal their flaws (a lesson Payton should have considered before bashing Hackett). From this incident and the facts it revealed to fans and analysts, Payton’s greatest weaknesses as a leader in the NFL include Empathy and Virtuousness.


Walk a mile in their shoes.” We often suggest this when it comes to empathizing with others. It’s better if we walk a mile in their muddy boots. We must know what it’s like on the other person’s toughest day or greatest challenge. Payton did none of this. He came into a new role, in a new organization and assumed he knew everything that his predecessors and others he attacked, experienced. He never contacted Hackett to get his experience or insights. 


It’s a lesson we learn early in our youth: attacking others to make ourselves feel better is never the answer. For Payton, blasting everyone before him had the added benefit of making others believe he had such a huge problem to fix. It’s childish and an indicator of amateur leadership behavior. Better leaders make similar assessments, highlighting their challenges, but without attacking people. 

Regret Not an Apology

Payton fans argue that he walked back his comments the day after he made the statement. They’re half-right. The day after he trashed so many people, he told reporters he “regretted” his comments and probably should have had a better “filter”. That is no apology. True regret includes an apology to those offended.


Great leadership requires 7 principles. Sean Payton’s attack on and subsequent loss to Nathaniel Hackett revealed leadership weaknesses (in addition to karma). Moving forward, Payton could learn a lot about Empathy and Virtuousness. His pride and authenticity will likely prevent him from reaching out to Hackett for those lessons. Some other NFL coaches, stronger in these principles than Payton, that he may wish to learn from, are Tony Dungy and Andy Reid. Both also have higher winning percentages.

If you or your organization could use some help building better bosses, contact Ben for an exploratory call.


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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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