Mike Singletary on How to "Walk the Talk" on Your Own
players often stood in fear staring into the piercing
eyes of Chicago Bears' middle linebacker Mike Singletary.
Not only did his intensity and motivation affect the
other team, those leadership qualities led the 1985 Bears
to victory in Super Bowl XX. Both on and off the field,
he did what came naturally-he led by example. His new
challenge is working with organizations. Singletary
believes that leaders must command respect and be
consistent, patient, unbiased and faithful. Stating that
he sees leadership fading, he wants to keep things
simple. People should listen-he has an extensive resume
and great first-hand experience.
Singletary is widely known for his
accomplishments on the football field. Regarded as one of
the greatest middle linebackers ever to play the game,
Singletary was selected to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls and
was twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His
football achievements were capped in 1998 when he was
voted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Beyond the list of
individual honors, he captained the Bears through most of
his career. After retiring, he took his leadership style
to the business world, speaking on motivation,
leadership, diversity and organizational change. In his
presentations, he shares proven methods for tackling
obstacles that face businesses today. With two books on
the shelves, "Team of Eagles" and "Daddy's Home at Last,"
Singletary's next goal is to launch a leadership
In a recent interview with AQP's Executive
Director Kevin McManus, Singletary discusses how he
developed his leadership style, whom he regards as great
leaders in his life and what skills are necessary to be
effective in the future.
NFC: Which conference are you attending right
Singletary: The Ford Conference. I'm looking at
some of the training they are doing. One of the things I
am doing in the next few months is launching a leadership
institute. I am also teaching and training in
two-and-a-half day seminars. I am very excited about that
and just trying to make sure we have a cutting-edge
program when we step out there.
NFC: There are so many other people trying to
address the leadership issue. What are you going to do
differently, or what are you going to offer, that is
different than what's already out there?
Singletary: First and foremost is my experience
being a leader, then having the opportunity to be around
so many leaders and being part of an organization where
many people are doing leadership training. Also, there is
a lot of teaching going on but I don't really see a lot
of the leadership skills being practiced by the people
after they leave. I want to attack the leadership issues
and really challenge the mentality of people. I don't
want people to come to our program and say, "Oh yeah,
that's really good, I like that." I want them to say,
"It's time for me to do that."
NFC: You were known for your intensity when you
were playing football. Would you say that teaching people
how to ignite that same kind of intensity within
themselves is something that is going to be part of your
Singletary: I want people to be aware that they
have a choice to do things differently than they have
been doing, and then help them create a vision for their
lives and make sure that they stay on course. A lot of
times people go through the motions and don't realize
that they really can change. If they want another job, if
they want a raise or if they want to be a better parent,
they can do it. It is not going to be easy. It takes
self-reflection and brutal honesty about who they are and
where they are. Then it comes down to making decisions
about what to do once they know this.
NFC: I think in your case you are a very different
person than the person portrayed as the crazy middle
linebacker. Somehow when you go into a leadership role,
you know how to frame your mind or set yourself up to be
a good leader. We want to know how you make sure you
fulfill your obligations.
Singletary: My partner and I were talking about
some of the things we consider when we think of a leader.
One of the first things that comes to my mind is the most
difficult-leading by example. I have been very fortunate
to have a few leaders that were really good, but the
consistency of being the example is something I feel is
NFC: Did you feel that Grant Teaff was a pretty
Singletary: Great leader.
NFC: What did he do at Baylor that made him a
great leader in your mind?
Singletary: He would be the example that I was
talking about in being consistent and "walking that
talk." The other thing is allowing us as players, to have
ownership. I don't really think leaders can call
themselves leaders until their fear is gone, in terms of
who is going to get the credit. There are a lot of
leaders that are not able to teach and free others to be
who they are and do their own style.
NFC: What were the differences between your
college coach and Mr. Ditka, your pro
Singletary: Consistency was one of the
fundamental differences. Coach Ditka definitely had the
fire, and so did Grant Teaff, but when we won the
conference, Coach Teaff never changed. But after we won
the Superbowl Coach Ditka definitely changed and he
realizes that. That was something we talked about. It
hurt the team, it hurt him and it hurt our chances of
moving forward. That wasn't the only thing, but that was
a big thing.
NFC: Were you the official defensive leader when
you first joined the Bears?
Singletary: No, that wasn't until my second
NFC: Were you assigned the role of defensive
captain, or is it something you earned?
Singletary: I think it is something that I
NFC: Why didn't Dan Hampton become the defensive
Singletary: He didn't want to be. He realized the
inconsistency in himself. Dan could be very critical. He
was the kind of guy who couldn't find a nice way of
saying you weren't doing your job. You can't be a leader
and be like that. He really didn't have the patience to
be a student in terms of personality and to really look
at being a leader. I think that he was very honest and
said, "I don't want to be a leader."
NFC: Suppose you have someone in an organization
that actually is a leader by title. They are a supervisor
or manager, but they have that same attitude. How do you
fix that? Can you let them keep doing their job, or can
you develop that in them? What do you do?
Singletary: There are several things that have to
be done. If they have the desire to be a leader and just
don't have the skills, then you teach them how to be a
leader. If they don't have the desire, and they really
don't want to be a leader, then you have to bring someone
alongside them that can lead.
NFC: After you left football, you lost that formal
leadership role. What did you move into next in terms of
Singletary: I continued to grow as a learner in
the field of leadership and teamwork, as I continued to
speak to organizations about various subjects such as
teamwork, leadership, change and diversity. I became a
tremendous student of continued learning and a
facilitator in terms of trying to help organizations, as
well as people in prisons, figure out where they are
going. I have coached them and told them that they can
make it and make a difference. That is what I have
NFC: Why didn't you stay in football and go into
Singletary: Well, once again, when you talk about
leadership it is the consistency, the example. The thing
I couldn't get past was the time that everyone said it
took to coach. That doesn't make sense to me.
NFC: Because it ruptured the balance between
family and work?
NFC: You mentioned diversity. How do you see
diversity and leadership play together?
Singletary: I don't like the word diversity. I
look at it as 'higher-level teamwork.' A leader is a
person who has the ability to communicate across all
lines. They are unbiased in terms of who they deal with
and why they deal with them. A true leader is a person
that is looking at doing things right-making the right
decision regardless of anything else. You don't have to
lecture or talk to them about it. They have a conscience
of what the right thing to do is, and they do it. That
eliminates all of the other stuff, like who's best for
the job, who I like to talk to or who I like to associate
NFC: Which top three leadership models do you try
to learn from the most?
Singletary: The first would be my mother. The
second would be my high school coach. The third would be
NFC: We have already talked about Coach Teaff in
terms of him setting an example and being consistent.
What about your mother? What were some of her key
Singletary: I think it was her faithfulness and
her prayers. My mother was a woman of prayer. Leaders
sometimes frustrate themselves by feeling like they have
to know everything. There were a lot of things she didn't
know. She only went to school through the eighth grade
and wasn't the greatest student in the world. For those
things she didn't know, she prayed about. And she had to
have a hunch and a gut feeling and faith to move forward.
She had her faith where it needed to be. And because she
had her faith there, she didn't lead out of fear,
ignorance or emotion. She led on what she knew. That's
why I respect her leadership so much.
NFC: How about your high school coach?
Singletary: My high school coach was a
fundamentalist. He kept it simple. If you did what you
had to do, you were all right with him. If you didn't do
what you had to do, you had a problem. He made you
understand what you did wrong and why you needed to get
it right and how to do it right. He talked about life. To
me the true leaders are bold, whether they are football
coaches, military men or women, whatever they do, they
also talk about life and how to live life. What is common
sense? What is having courage? What is standing alone? He
was all of that to me.
NFC: What is the main question you get asked about
Singletary: How do you become a leader?
NFC: What do you tell them?
Singletary: I ask, "Who are the people in your life
that you respect?" I don't think the goal is to become a
leader. The goal is to become someone that is respected.
That is the bottom line of what a leader is-someone whom
you respect. You may not agree all of the time, you may
not like them, but you respect them because it is
difficult being a leader.
NFC: If we look at everything going on in the
world today, in terms of technological changes, where do
you see leadership heading? Do you see it changing or
requiring different skills?
Singletary: I see leadership fading. Particularly
in our young people; the next set of leaders. I was
talking with my wife about it the other day. You can't go
to a game and see kids playing without a referee.
Everything has to be right. We have all of these rules
and kids are not allowed to think anymore. Either they
are in front of a television or they are playing a game
that is refereed. When I was growing up, you made your
own rules and decided who was going to be on the team.
You decided what made the teams fair. I think that is
where creativity, leadership and innovation came from.
Now everything is so structured. Kids don't have time to
sit down and reflect, "How would I do this differently?"
Then you look at the other issue of single parenting.
That makes it very difficult. They are learning from one
model. That model, oftentimes, really has to work. And
with some of the things that are decreasing in our
schools, whether it is workshop or art class that is
being extracted from the schools because of funding, kids
can't learn artistically. So, as a country, I think we
have always had a lot of leadership, but I see that
really fading. I think that we are redefining what
leadership is in the new millennium. And that's
NFC: What do you think we need to do to fix
Singletary: I think we need to go back and visit
our past and look at what those leaders were made of,
look at what we liked about them and look at what we
didn't like. But look at what we have really valued about
them. We need to look at some of those things that we
have to do now and begin to introduce some of those
things to our young people. Maybe as a country, setting
up some kind of standards in terms of students taking
courses in leadership and challenge them.
NFC: When you look at some of the people trying to
be leaders in this world today, are there some that
really do stand out as good leaders?
Singletary: If you had asked me that question a
couple of years ago, I had a lot of people.
Unfortunately, I've gotten to know some of them and
studied some of them a little bit closer and I am not
excited about what I am seeing. There are still some out
there, but right now I am very concerned about the
leadership of our country. Starting at a point now where
it doesn't take a whole lot to really get off track.
There are so many intangibles of leadership and so many
ways of being unethical and getting off track. It is
difficult right now to look at someone and say, "Wow,
that's a leader." Because now I am just telling my kids,
"Don't ever say that you'd like to be like this person
because you don't go home with them. You don't really
know them that well." And that is the thing that I have
to remember. So, how close can you get to a leader? How
close can you get to someone? I guess that's when you
begin to try and define "Wow, I really like that person,"
or "That person is a leader." Maybe I haven't gotten that
close to someone in the past few years.
NFC: The tagline for our event is "Maximizing the
Leadership Potential in Everyone." What do you think a
leader needs to do to try to bring everybody up in terms
of their level of leadership?
Singletary: Look at the needs of people. It is so
easy to say, "O.K., this is what we are going to do. We
can give this person leadership." You can't give a
one-size-fits-all kind of deal. I think in order to be a
really effective leader, you have to know whom it is that
you are trying to lead. You have to know who they are and
what they need. Whether it is in your family, whether
it's in an organization; it really takes time to study
people and say, "O.K., in order for this person to be a
leader that can make decisions, ethical decisions, good
decisions, decisions based on integrity, they need this."
If I have five people and I try to give them all the same
thing, I have a problem. Somebody is going to miss it.
Somebody already has it. Somebody doesn't have a clue. So
I just really need to be able to be a student of my
NFC: If you wanted to close this article with a
message regarding leadership, what would it be?
Singletary: Make sure that you are a person worthy
of respect. Make sure you are worthy of someone following