Marquis’s wisdom is far beyond his years. You can’t hear this in the audio but I met him at a draft party, an NFL draft party. At this party where the Vince Lombardi trophies from the New England Patriots they showed videos of him with his brilliant open field tackle in the Super Bowl. So Marquis was a star in the situation. He could have been however he wanted to and he was as humble as can be in our conversation. As a New England Patriots player, he demonstrates again how athletes and leaders think so much in terms of teams, personal development and commitment to achieving goals, the same aspirations that drive leaders to be great. And the reason I titled this episode You Learned Leadership Wrong is that I work with a lot of students and clients who have learned leadership through traditional education and they do not get what Marquis shares. So listen in as he shares what it means to go from being the guy that nobody knows on a team that didn’t really have much of a future to making critical open field tackles part of the Super Bowl team and making all the highlight reels. So without further ado, here’s Marquis.
Joshua: Hello. Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Marquis Flowers of the New England Patriots. And we’re here at a draft party outside of Boston. So if you hear background noise it’s because we are here at a real thing. How are you, Marquis?
Marquis: I’m good. Thank you very much. I’m good. Thank you for asking. I am just excited to have this opportunity.
Joshua: And you know I was telling you before that one of the things I find that, I think a lot of people in leadership, especially in business leadership, I think they learn leadership through life like they think it’s just life bringing some stuff or they learn stuff in school. And I think that athletes learn leadership in a much more visceral way. And I want to get a picture from you about your experiences that are relevant…Hopefully you help other people learn what you have too, maybe without getting hit so much. I guess you do the hitting.
Marquis: Right. Absolutely. But like you said getting hit so much same thing but through this game of football I’ve learned a lot. I learned a lot from playing it from an early age it honestly taught me leadership, it taught me discipline, respect and authority. You name it. I mean sports teaches you a lot and staying out of trouble is just the little things that you know being the leader you know you kind of learn and you learn from other players. Everyone’s a leader in this world. Let me start with that. You know there’s different kinds of leaders from being a father to being a big brother to older sibling. There’s all kinds of different leaders in this world and I think on a football you become a leader just by what you do. There are different kinds of leaders, there’s vocal leaders and there’s guys that lead by example. And you know the guys like you know Tom Brady might be a vocal leader. Then there’s guys like Dante Hightower that could be a vocal leader or he can lead by example which basically means you know I’m going to do the things right. I am not going [unintelligible]. I am going to do everything right and then everybody else is going to say, “Look at him how he’s doing it. Let me do something like him.” So you know there is leading by example. There’s all kinds of different types of leadership.
Joshua: A lot of people think you’re either born with it or not. But I hear you say, you said learn a lot. So like football brought it to you. How did you learn leadership? People couldn’t see this because it’s audio only. But when I said “People think you’re born leader” you’re like whatever it was no way. Had you not gotten into football because you’ve been not a leader because you have not learned what you learned, if life should be different?
Marquis: It definitely could have been different path. Definitely life would definitely have been different. I’m fortunate to be able to play this game that I love and play it for so long but just being a leader like there are different kinds of leaders and I don’t think everyone is born right away and say you know, “This guy is a leader”. I don’t think you can say that right when someone is born like this guy is a leader. I think he learns like I’m thinking at the top of my head some of the greatest leaders of sports like the Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis guys like that I mean this is learned through year. You could tell. You know this is learned through years, this is learned through adversity. This is learned through tough days, tough days and you know things weren’t gone right, fighting through it. And this is learned. And that’s what makes the great leaders in this game. I mean the guy who’s been through a lot, who’s lost games, who’s been through injuries, who’s been through adversity and yet he still rises as the guy [unintelligible], “OK right. That’s the ultimate leader right now.”
But again, like I just said I wasn’t playing football. There’s different kind of leaders. I have a son. You know I have a son in college. He now has two younger sisters. You know when I called and tell him you know he’s 6 right now but I can tell he doesn’t realize it but you know he’s a leader [unintelligible] his younger sister. They’re going to look up to him. I was the youngest child so I had an older sister, but even if they are the oldest, they look up to you. I’m a father, I’m a leader to him. He looks up to me. So there’s a different kind of leaders in everything that we do.
Joshua: So it’s something you talked about that I think is really key is that you know people say it’s not hard you hit, it’s hard to get hit and still keep going and you talked about like the really difficult times getting through. And I think that a lot of people are like the difficult times is maybe you take a step back and relax and regroup. But I’m hearing from you and I feel like those are the times that count the most. But they are also the hardest. I mean that’s why leaders emerge and not-leaders don’t. Do you have a story about a time like that?
Marquis: Absolutely. I mean I think every athlete who is at this point has a story of adversity at the highest level. I could think of one at the top of my head. College career, I went to University of Arizona, college career started three years we you know didn’t get to really the big game that we wanted to get the college career good player don’t get invited to the NFL [unintelligible]. So now me as a player trying to showcase my talent against who the experts think is the best in my position. I’m at home while they’re competing and I’m sitting there basically while they’re competing and I’m not part of that competition. They can’t see, “Hey, is this guy as [unintelligible].” I’m at home. So what happens? Get drafted, eight round, six round. You know it’s a blessing and you still make it. Get dratted perfect. Now I am coming into a lead, in business as a low draft big guy which means basically the guys that went at the high rounds they are kind of secure for a couple of years. They can be comfortable. The guys that I met you’ve got to work for everything. You know nothing is given. You can be at home next week.
So you know how do you get through that? You try. Fortunately, I made the team three years but I didn’t really get to play. So now I’m sitting here and I’m like the game that I love, the game I grew up in and I’m facing the hardest time, I’m thinking about retirement. I’m thinking about you know why am I doing this, why am I leaving my family making these sacrifices to get better as a player but I’m still not getting the proper opportunity to play.
And every day I wake up and see my kids and you just got to find that little desire or whatever it is whether it’s family, whether it’s your teammates, whether it’s your love for the game. And I think all of that played a part in that little fire that burns in you and you get up every morning to keep doing this, keep working harder and harder and harder to try to prove it and then get traded to the Patriots. And now you’re on the field, now you’re playing, now you’re doing everything that you knew you could do and now you’re doing it with a team. Now you’re winning games with the team and you’re being a part of helping your team win. And it’s like you sit back and say, “I just went through something that I didn’t give up on.” You crawled your way out of this so now you know that you could dig your way out of stuff.
I know everyone’s different and sometimes a lot of players in this league will go through something and you know they don’t make it out because it’s hard to get out of, it doesn’t mean they’re quitters or anything, it is just hard to get out of. But when you fight and you get out of something like that you know that’s a huge step. You basically there’s no limit to what you can do and you actually just put your mind to it and you just keep fighting.
Joshua: If you make it through something like that.
Marquis: If you make it through something like that, yes.
Joshua: It’s almost like you don’t want that to happen because you are not like, “Oh, please like put me in the bottom…” Like you’re in but you’re not.
Marquis: You are in but you’re not.
Joshua: And then you can’t really go and be like, “Hey, I’m in the NFL” because you’re also like not quite there.
Marquis: You’re not quite there and it’s like hey, I’m in the NFL and it’s like “But am I really?” You know and that’s why I said, “Am I really?” I mean if I’m not really playing helping my team when I’m kind at the bottom into something where any day they can come and say, “Hey, we’re going to go with this guy over you.” And every day could be like that. I’m not saying every day is like that but when you’re at the bottom you know you haven’t play… But my biggest thing for me was when you know that you could help your team win and now your team’s not winning and you’re not playing it is just stress on top of stress on top of stress. So it’s like you get the opportunity to go out and you finally go out there and you like make that play or help your team in a huge way, you make a huge play and it’s just like…It was just a couple of months ago I was back in where I was in my house and my room you know “Is this what I’m going to do? Am I going to still be in this league?” And now I’m out here like I belong here. It’s a boost of confidence as you do it, I belong here. I paid my dues, I got out of it and I’m still working. But it’s a boost of confidence.
Joshua: It reminds me of something I say sometimes. I’ve cried from business, girls, sports. Those are the things to me that have been like the most gut wrenching, the most emotionally intense, the most difficult. I have an experience at your level.
Marquis: I mean I don’t cry from girls but I definitely understand.
Only I don’t cry from girls but just because what I did was sports. I mean definitely you know and I know everybody the fans just see the canes and the good times. They see all that but the one goes into it is intense training year-round just training and training that starts months before even the first game.
Joshua: I want to ask you about that. You learned you were going to be in this_____ two weeks before. Up until that you don’t know. I mean you hope, that’s what it’s all for. That’s not what you start training for the Super Bowl. I mean it can’t be. It must be…Are you training for the next year Super Bowl right now?
Marquis: The Super Bowl is like a long-term goal. That’s what you guys think about like the Super Bowl. You got it right now. I’m training to become a better player to help my team. So I’m going to be training and become a better player, all around better player so that when I get with my teammates I help my team.
Joshua: The first thing you said was team. It’s like you’re doing stuff for your team and the media it’s like so much….I don’t know if it’s like Brave Heart. You know it’s a put on the blue face paint, like charge in a battle but I haven’t met a successful leader who acts that way at all. It’s always putting the others first. Is that something you learned? Or is that something that got you…
Marquis: I think it’s something you learn. I think it’s something you learn. So I could just talk…I only talk about me. I only talk about me so let’s talk about me. I’ve been the best player on the team and I’ve been the ”we don’t even know who this guy is” on the team. Like I told you the three years I was in Cincinnati I had to play a lot and I’ve been the guy on the team, the best player. But every one counts because whether you’re the top guy, the middle guy or really what bands can say…Or you’re a bottom guy everyone counts because we need… We’re strong as our weakest link and you know there is no weak link. That saying basically in sports is basically saying there is no weak link. We need everybody in.
Joshua: OK. So see you were the weak link. I’m sorry. There are no weak links but you are the….
Marquis: Yeah, say I was the little guy.
Joshua: Yeah. That’s I think a lot of people…. Everyone feels way. I think either you don’t try and have no aspirations of greatness which is fine. People watch a lot of TV, they eat a lot of ice cream but if you aspire to greatness, if you aspire to make a difference in the world that’s going to happen. You’re going to be in that situation. How do you motivate yourself in a situation like that?
Marquis: You’ve got to ignore the outside noise and that’s what I said about leaders. Leaders on your team do a great job and what a lot people don’t understand when these leaders is and will always be the head coach of a sports team, he’s the biggest leader. He’s the commander in chief. And then you’ve got players that are great leaders but you just got to keep fighting. You can’t listen to the outside noise of all the media who you know [unintelligible]. They only want the hot guys, they only want the guys that score touchdown the [unintelligible]. Don’t get me wrong. Great guys. They don’t act like that. It’s the media that portrays them. This is all the Patriots, this is all your whole team. But it’s the guys that’s running down and kickoff the guys, it’s blocking their butts off from kickoff return. The guys that are coming in whether you have one play or three plays, they are going to be the three biggest players in the game.
Joshua: Now you’re talking about games but all the time you spend with teammates. There’s a lot of like I don’t know lifting weights, running scrimmages, practice. There is a lot of stuff that fans don’t see, even if they see every game.
Marquis: No. It’s a lot you don’t see. And that’s the thing about you know sports football. You see those guys a lot.
Joshua: Which guys?
Marquis: Your teammates. You see them a lot. You see them every day. You spend a lot of time with them. So you know how this person is, you know how this person is, you know how this person is, you know he does that. You actually know them as… That’s why a lot of sports teams, they call them families, it’s a family. You see them every day, you see them honestly, I want to say more than your own family, but you see them just as much as your family. You see them every day. So they know your personality, they know when you’re down. They know when the great leaders known their players, “Oh, something’s bothering them.” You go through so many different things because at the end of the day we are still human beings. We still have life outside of sports. You know we still have death in family and then all that that we still have to deal with and at the same time deal with sports so you go through a lot but it’s well worth it because like I said it’s a process. You take it one day at a time. You do it together. And honestly that’s the biggest accomplishment making it to a game like the Super Bowl because it was a team effort to get there. So you knew everybody put in everything they had you know for four seasons.
Joshua: You sound like someone like 40-50 years old when you talk that way. The experience that you’ve been through sounds like the experience of someone a lot older than you. Maybe you’re 40-50 years old.
Marquis: I am not 40-50 years. But yeah, I mean you go through things. Everyone does. You go through things especially in the sports world you go through things and a lot of people don’t understand that athletes can get depressed in the sports world. This is something that you love that you’ve been playing your whole life, if something goes wrong whether it’s all you’re not playing enough or is a injury or it’s just not working out for you or something’s going wrong, it can really demoralize an athlete because at the time a lot of people…Actually, people can relate whether it’s work, whether it’s anything, whether it’s school that extra studying at the time you feel like you’re just doing it. You feel like “Is this really going to help me? Is this really going to work for me?” You know you never really know at the time you’re doing it because you think it’s going to work but when it actually works you are just feeling like of relief like, an accomplishment like. I stuck with it. I did it, I stuck with it and now together this is what we’re doing. So I mean it is great. The sports world is great. It’s definitely great. I love it.
Joshua: You know so people don’t know this but just before we started talking your agent was showing clips of lots of different players that he represents and I asked you what it’s like seeing yours and you like you stepped out. Obviously, you’ve seen them before. Well, one of the reasons I’ve brought that up was that…There was one way you made this open field tackle like no one anywhere around. And you kind of expect the guys to get past you and you are like, “No, you are not getting past.” You are bringing them down. And it looks great from like many different angles. I mean do you remember that moment? Do you remember which one I am talking about?
Marquis: You are talking about the Super Bowl. I didn’t know he had put that on there.
Joshua: Yeah. Because we don’t see that and we just see like a guy like he’s doing something big. But maybe at the time you’re thinking I don’t know that…
Marquis: For me, I expect to make it because I know I got ten guys on the field that’s counting on me to make that play and I got all the coaching staff and all the guys on the sideline that count on me to make that play. So that’s what sports is about.
Joshua: I mean a lot of people crumble under that pressure.
Marquis: It could. It could but you can’t…You’ve got to go out there and if you give your best, that’s all they ask. That’s all they ask. Sometimes things don’t happen. If I miss those tackles, sometimes it’s going to happen. There might have been one of my teammates behind me. That’s why we got each other’s back. You know [unintelligible] right away. But in that situation I put myself in a position as if everyone’s count on me, I got to make this play because I know I can make it.
Joshua: OK, so now you make it.
Marquis: And now I make it.
Joshua: And now you stand up afterward…
Marquis: In adrenalin and in this like you know like, yes, I stand, do a little war dance like I made it but most of all is just encouraging when you get it from your teammates like a job because that means that the job you did that, let’s move on now to the next play and try to make the same thing make. Make another stop. So it’s all a time when you make a play it’s about you know…What a lot of people don’t understand is my goal is to stop him. His goal is to get past me. So every play a goal is not going to be met by the offence or by the defense, by the one player, by another player. So it is like you try to win every down. You’re not going to win every down but if you think, “Let’s win every down,” then you know you will win more than you lose.
Joshua: Do you realize how much of what you’re saying is valuable to everything in life? Do you realize that when you’re saying it or is it just like, ”Oh, that’s interesting”?
Marquis: No, I definitely realize that because just like I said the sports world brings that stuff. I mean I play sports since I was 8 years old. It’s taught me a great deal in this is saying like you said about life and people are trying to win different battles and they’re trying to win every day. They’re trying to win every day so I definitely understand it.
Joshua: I forget if I said this on now or just before we started talking but one of the things that drives me why I like to talk to sports people is that leadership… There’s a lot of sports athletes who go into leadership roles in business and politics and so forth. I don’t know many senators who then became athletes. I think what sports, competition, winning, losing, teamwork, I think with the teaches is really valuable outside. I mean this there is like [unintelligible] presidents who were athletes. Do you know that Lincoln was a wrestler?
Marquis: No, I didn’t know that.
Joshua: He was a trash talking wrestler. And I’ll send you like some of the stuff he said. It’s kind of cool.
All right. I want to wrap up. I want to ask you this might be a whole other thing but you said you started when you were really young. When you began how much of what you are now… Was that potential always there? Did you know it? OK. You started at 8. Did you start football? Did you expect the maturity… We’re talking about stuff that’s not just like how fast you could run 100 meters or what you can squat. It’s also this deep meaningful stuff. Did you know that was there? Did you ask for that? Did you expect it?
Marquis: I did not. I did not. I was just so happy to play football and you know when you start at a young age it’s like you know it’s like, “Mom, dad, can I play football?” Yeah, that’s what you want to do. And I just want them things like you know I’m in a sport. I’m trying to win a trophy. And it’s more selfish as you’re young because you don’t realize but then as you kind get around the team and it’s like OK you learn how to be a teammate. You learn how to be respectful to your coach. Yes, sir. No, sir. You learn how to take authority. Listen to authority. You learn how to compete in a respectful manner. I don’t want to say you learn how to lose because there’s no… I hate losing. I like I just hate to lose. But you don’t know how to deal with. You learn that there are no excuses. You know they came better and you got to get better. Point taken. Period. You learn how to take that and you learn how to not get better but come back stronger. You learn all that and not right when you’re young. It’s over the years because when you’re young, you are not a locker room guy. And you kind of get older you get to high school you say, “OK, now you’re in a locker room. How are you going a locker room?” [unintelligible] You got to be a good teammate. You got to be a good locker room guy, a guy that’s not going to cause a lot of the you know drama and all that and people got to like you. You just keep learning.
It just teaches you things that you didn’t realize. You don’t realize it. You don’t realize that you’re coming away with this stuff until it’s like, “Oh, you know what taught me that.” And you think that football, whatever basketball, a lot of sports teach you that. But it’s like that’s where I learned this from.
Joshua: If you’d known that it was coming would you have gotten in faster or different, same?
Marquis: Same. Like I said when you’re young you just try and you know what I put my son in soccer. He’s five. He doesn’t know that right now it is teaching him. Yes, sir. No, sir. He doesn’t understand it right now but he will when he’s in high school. It keeps you out of trouble. Kids tend to get in trouble. Well, kids in sports [unintelligible] you know because when it is, “Let’s do something”, it is, “I don’t know because I’ve got a game this Saturday that I really want to play in.” It kind of makes you when you love doing something it makes you be, “I don’t want to do nothing to mess this up” which makes you walk a straight path whether you realize it or not. He is not getting in trouble because he wants to play. He’s getting a grade because he wants to play. So it helps you in all aspects.
Joshua: Oh, man. I don’t know if I should bring this up. One of my students started this project. He is American born of Palestinian descent and he started this leadership program in the West Bank and one of the students who took his leadership program, [unintelligible] is really highly valued there and there’s a TED Talk. This student of mine who did this project, he did it in my class, there’s a TED talk on this leadership program and this one student before doing the leadership program they said, “What do you want to do with your life? And he said a whole bunch of stuff but it’s like, “One day, you know I want to lead a regular life but eventually put on a vest and blow myself up in a mall” or something like that because that’s what… They got no future, they feel there’s a future there. So teaching leadership stuff, active experiential the kid discovered soccer and he discovered community. And I think it was a couple of days before the TED talk he got picked to represent the national team and he was going to Manchester, England to compete international soccer. And it’s like sports leadership it’s a way out.
Marquis: It is a way out.
Joshua: I don’t know if I got too heavy there. Sorry.
Marquis: No. I mean to blow yourself up in a mall, wow.
Joshua: It’s a true story, it’s tragic except that it worked out so far so good.
Marquis: Yeah, it’s definitely a way out. There are a lot of guys that they don’t know what they would be doing right now if it wasn’t for sports.
Joshua: OK, so let me ask you that. A lot of people listening they’re not going to…Maybe they are too old to play competitive sport. They’re going to think they don’t have sports. Is that right? Can they get what you’re getting from football from something else?
Marquis: Absolutely. It’s not just from football, it’s not just from sports. I mean you get it from a lot of things, you can get it from so many things. Whatever your dream is I would just say just keep pushing towards it. Don’t ever give up on it. Now I only use football because this is what I play but there’s guys who dream of playing in the NFL. But in order to do that they go to high school, got to go to college. Now a lot of guys are going to D1 college. Everybody has a thing. Well you go to D1 college, top university and then you’re going to the NFL. You know there’s guys that go what you go. Some of the best guys in the league camp juco you know junior college and when I see guys some time when I go talk to kids or talk to high-school students, kids are like you know, “I didn’t really make it to a D1 university. I only made it to juco”. And I told him like, “OK well you know yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that. You go to the JUCO, you give your all, you put in extra work and the next you know you’re at a university. Just like that. And now your goal is still in reach.”
There’s teams, and again I’ll use football teams that start off [unintelligible]. Media, “Oh, there are no good, they go on a winning streak.” And next thing you know they’re playing in the Super Bowl. So you never give up on just because it wasn’t going the way you thought it should go. Honestly, nothing never goes the way you think it should go. With me, nothing never goes the way I wanted to go. So there’s always some rerouting that’s going on.
Joshua: I love how you’re laughing about it now. I’m sure in the moment you were, “God, damn it!”
Marquis: Nothing never goes the way… And I don’t care. It might be something as simple as putting the baby cribs together. All you know this should be the you know put it up in 30 minutes. I did it in about three hours. Nothing never goes right. This screw won’t screw another. Something is always wrong with something but there’s always… You just keep fighting through it.
Joshua: And then I have to ask you this phrase I think is the phrase of our time sadly is working in the environment area is people say you know, “I want to do something but if I do and everyone else doesn’t, what I do won’t really make a difference. So I’ll just keep doing what I used to do.” How does that sound to you?
Marquis: It’s an excuse. Sounds like a long sad story. You can change the world by what you do. You know you can help change your world by what you do. If you don’t do it because you think no one else would do, that’s not change. You’re doing the same thing. That’s being a follower. You got to be a leader. You got to be able to make that change. Does it matter what they’re doing? I mean that’s the best advice I could give on it. Don’t ever think just because you don’t think this person would do it, you shouldn’t do it either. No if you believe in something do that and if that person doesn’t believe in it when everybody else starts doing it and they believe in you, he’ll come along or she’ll come along or whatever. So that’s just how I feel about that.
Joshua: Marquis, I want to thank you for being open, for being vulnerable, for sharing all these things. If you have any last word, let me know. Otherwise, thank you very much.
Marquis: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.
I walked away from this conversation realizing what a humble, driven but accomplished guy Marquis is for the challenges that he’s overcome. The training that athletes get – winning, losing, having to get back into things, depending on your teammates, having your teammates depend on you – these lessons are so much more valuable than the academic compliance-based training that most leadership programs give. We were at a party. We didn’t get to talk about taking on a personal challenge but I learned a lot from Marquis. From making it through these difficult periods and growing as a result to being a great teammate in the height of competition the United States I hope you got the lessons that I did from Marquis.
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