3 Leadership Lessons I Learned From the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association

DeMaurice Smith advocates on behalf of players, but he also empowers them to follow their passion and educates them on building a brand.
3 Leadership Lessons I Learned From the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association
Image credit: Rich Graessle | Icon Sportswire | Corbis | Getty Images
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I’m a professional lacrosse player for the New York Lizards and Team USA. Many of you may not even know there’s a pro lacrosse league -- and that’s OK. When I graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2008, the foundational mission of any project we worked on was to amplify messaging around our game, lower barriers to enter and improve socioeconomic conditions. With limited resources and smaller distribution channels, we’ve taken sports entrepreneurship into our own hands, building companies, leveraging new media, investing in startups and building a network of sports power brokers.

I took what I learned and who I knew, then decided to launch this show. Fast forward to now, we’ve partnered with Entrepreneur.com to share our conversations with the world’s most influential people in sports. I’m Paul Rabil, and this is our Suiting Up Podcast musing.

DeMaurice Smith not only negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the NFL on behalf of the players, but he’s also empowering them to harness their interests and passion projects, educating and accelerating them through the process of concept to company, and leading the transforming narrative of the modern day athlete entrepreneur.

Smith is a former trial lawyer and litigating partner in Washington, D.C., and in 2009 was unanimously elected as the NFL Players Association’s executive director. Since then, he’s helped architect a $160 million per year Players’ Inc. marketing division, co-created ACE Media and engineered the first athlete-driven accelerator, One Team Collective.

Smith's lessons are impressive, packed into a 90-minute conversation. Here are three takeaways that got me pondering ways I can plug and play within our running platforms and services.

1. He's successfully transcended marketplaces.

Formerly prosecuting for the U.S. Attorney General, Smith says his homicide prosecuting experience prepared him for the NFLPA. He tried 110 cases. That’s a lot. When you’re young, hungry and able, investing in experience is invaluable. Today, Smith does more managing and is the visionary behind the platform's growth, yet the days he spent in the courtroom enables him to talk with a level of granularity with his hundreds of employees.

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

2. Top professionals strive to excel at mentorship.

Smith points to his years as a litigator, but stresses his personal growth comes from the kinship with his son. He says, “A great coach becomes a life mentor.” Too many coaches and business professionals are transactional. Seek to become transformational. Coaches will see you at your strongest, but also at your emotionally and physically weakest. Developing skills of empathy and encouragement are just as critical as your ability to motivate and inspire.

3. Success comes from the sum of all parts.

Smith told me you have to “make sure you have the right teammates, then trust them to do their job.” It sounded a lot like our first podcast conversation with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Moreover, Smith says a company’s biggest pitfalls can come from micromanagement, and wasting time not fully utilizing your peers' autonomous skill sets. Empowering your analysts at the foundation of your org chart is just as important as listening to your senior leadership team.

Related: The Leadership Gap That You and the Most Prominent CEOs Have in Common

No task is too small for Smith. He spends time with NFL rookies (many of whom will never play a down in the NFL) to educate them on social media, sponsorship courting and the power of networking.

My favorite performance hacks? Like LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Smith carves out several hours a day for deep thinking. And similar to how the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University teaches its MBA candidates, Smith looks at feedback as a gift. He asks questions. This is a common theme Smith shares with our previous guests on the show. He prefers to be interested over being interesting.

Be the first to listen to future episodes as well as catch up on previous episodes, including my one-on-one conversation with legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick; world class tennis star and entrepreneur Venus Williams; and 14-time Team USA women’s soccer captain, Julie Foudy.

You can find all of these episodes and more on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, TuneIn, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

For show notes, athletes lists, news and headlines, visit Suitinguppodcast.com.

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