Leadership. What is it? Who is considered a leader? Are you born with it?
Bill O’Brien, a member of the St. John’s Prep Class of 1988 and head coach of the Houston Texans, has thought about leadership a lot since his high school days. When he came to campus on Tuesday to speak with students, parents, alumni, and guests, the topic took center stage. More photos from the evening can be found on SmugMug.
A native of Andover, O’Brien was the captain of the football team at St. John’s before attending Brown University. After returning to coach at Brown, he went on to work for the New England Patriots and Penn State University, accepting the position of head coach of the Houston Texans in 2014.
“I’ve worked with some amazing leaders,” said O’Brien, citing Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, J.J. Watts, and Deshaun Watson as just a few of those who he’s been surrounded by throughout his career.
Recently, Houston Texans owner Cal McNair asked O’Brien and two others in the organization to develop a list of characteristics that make a great leader. Considering how large of an operation an NFL team is, O’Brien had to take into account everyone from ticket-takers to trainers, players to media relations professionals, coaches to food servers. What he came up with was this: small ego, big mission; we before me; love and accountability; grace and honesty; demanding but not demeaning; loving but not enabling; high standards with a low tolerance for excuses; and being a good listener.
“Thirty years ago I thought being a great leader meant yelling and screaming,” said O’Brien to the students in the audience. “But as time went on, I realized there are different leadership styles. So if you’re a young guy sitting in this room and you think you have leadership abilities—if you’re part of a team, club, or church community, I think these characteristics are really important.”
He also spoke about how he believes that leadership isn’t necessarily something you’re born with. Rather, you can constantly improve your skills. Relating it to his professional coaching career, he said, “The NFL is all about who can improve the fastest. Our players come on the first day of training camp and are constantly improving as the season goes on. The same goes for leadership.”
Speaking to a crowd of alumni, O’Brien took the time to share funny stories and insights about the NFL, answer questions, and describe what he sees as the value of a St. John’s education.
“I think in today’s day and age, you have to have really good leaders,” said O’Brien. “In my opinion, this is one of the best schools there is. In academics, athletics, co-curricular activities, we are creating leaders right here. And these are the next leaders of Massachusetts, New England, the country, and like it says in the mission statement, the world. I truly believe that.”
And Bill O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, are putting that belief into action. Recently, the O’Brien family made a generous gift to St. John’s that will fund the O’Brien Student-Athlete Leadership Initiative. Focusing on sportsmanship, teamwork, perseverance and grit, this collaborative, student- and coach-focused program will develop and enhance leadership opportunities for both young people and the adults who mentor and advise them.
“Where I really started to learn about leadership was here at St. John’s,” he said. “My teachers, coaches, and the guys I was around all had a strong sense of character and values, they believed in competition, fairness, and hard work. They believed in supporting you.”
O’Brien is headed back to Houston to begin training camp on July 21, but that doesn’t mean the conversation about leadership ends there. To end his final talk, O’Brien had one final thing to say: “This place is about the people. Leadership, in that respect, starts at the Prep.”