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5 Powerful Communication Lessons to Learn from Coach Sean McDermott After the Damar Hamlin Crisis

By Don Yaeger | February 23, 2023
5 Powerful Communication Lessons to Learn from Coach Sean McDermott After the Damar Hamlin Crisis

The world’s eyes have been watching Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin these last few weeks. In the days after he went into cardiac arrest on an NFL football field, Google was inundated with requests for updates on his health. We were all rooting for him while we watched his status improve; we all breathed a sigh of relief when he opened his eyes; and, of course, we all laughed when his first question was, “Did we win?” No matter who you’d been rooting for that Monday, we were all Bills fans when he was discharged from the hospital on January 22.

But before that came the moment that set it all into motion.

Week 17. Monday night. 5:58 left in the first quarter. Hamlin made a terrific tackle, stood up, then collapsed. 10 seconds went by and he was still down. 15, 20, 30 seconds, and then there was a crowd. Moments later paramedics were  resuscitating him and rushing him to the hospital.

In that moment, the world’s eyes turned to Coach Sean McDermott.

Leaders Aren’t Made in Crisis; They’re Revelead

McDermott has gained a reputation as one of the NFL’s best coaches today, and not just because he’s responsible for reigniting the storied franchise after a 17-year dry spell. He’s a world-class leader – an effective communicator with a consistent work ethic that has created a pro-player culture within the Bills. He’s a coach “for the boys,” as left tackle Dion Dawkins says.

This last year alone has seen Sean leading well through a gamut of formidable roadblocks, all apparently preparing him for the night ofJanuary 2, 2023.

The moment Hamlin was rushed from the field everyone looked to McDermott for answers. The refs. The audience. The commissioner. The fans. His opponents. His team. He wasn’t just coaching the Bills anymore – he was the leader of the entire American football community and beyond.

John Maxwell says that leaders aren’t made in times of crisis; they’re revealed. And with the pressure mounting, Sean McDermott revealed himself to be a true leader.

1. HE KEPT A LEVEL HEAD.

Needless to say, emotions were running high – tension, uncertainty, unease. Players from both teams were seen kneeling as Hamlin lay still, shielding him from the cameras, but clearly unsettled. Their reactions sent shockwaves over the airwaves and everyone watching was impacted.

Despite normally being known for a steely resolve, McDermott was also visibly affected by Damar’s collapse. With a man down – and the world to address – anyone would understand if they saw his emotions get the better of him.

But McDermott knew the significance of the moment.

He knew it’s a leader’s job to define reality for those he leads. And with everyone looking to him, he had to remain calm and poised if he was going to define reality in a way that spoke to his team and the rest of the community. He had to remain present. And he did.

Bills QB Josh Allen has spoken highly of McDermott’s actions in those moments following the ambulance’s departure from the field: “I can’t say enough about what he did and what he said to us in the locker room.” Allen’s remarks echo those of many others who praised McDermott for his handling of the situation.

2. HE GAVE HIS TEAM A VOICE.

There’s a saying in the sports world – “Be where your feet are.” It’s supposed to ground you and recenter you.

But it’s also the standard of professionalism in football. No matter what else is going on in your world, you’re a player first and foremost. Are you having family problems back home? Be where your feet are. Is illness impacting a loved one? Be where your feet are. Players are expected to put their problems in a box when they’re on the field.

But when Damar went down, that was impossible for the rest of his team. They couldn’t play again until they knew their brother would be okay. And in an historic moment for the NFL, the players made that clear to McDermott – and he listened.

In a press conference the day after the incident, Bengals coach Zac Taylor explained that McDermott would not consider pushing forward with the game that night. “I look at Sean and those players, all they were doing was looking at their teammate, their brother, and hoping for the best. That’s the only thing going through their mind.”

3. HE FOCUSED ON OTHERS’ CONTRIBUTIONS.

Sean McDermott has always been an others-first leader. His relational record tells the story of a man who invests in and uplifts his team before seeking credit for himself.

In the wake of January 2, McDermott has gone on record several times to appreciate the work done by others to support Hamlin and the team.

That includes the assistant trainer that saved Hamlin’s life, Denny Kellington, of whom McDermott said in a press conference, “For an assistant to find himself in that position and take charge and step up like he did, it’s nothing short of amazing. The courage that took, you talk about a real leader and a real hero, for saving Damar’s life. I admire his strength.” In that same press conference, he also thanked the first responders, the medical staff at the University of Cincinnati Hospital – and everyone in the Bengals organization.

McDermott would also direct attention to the Bills owner Terry Pegula for prioritizing the mental health of his teammates.

In today’s corporate culture, there’s a lot of talk about what makes an effective leader, and what makes an effective coach. But no matter who you’re leading, or what you’re coaching them to do, Sean McDermott’s example is one to follow.

Interested in other impactful leadership insights?

Leadership expert, executive coach, and master storyteller Don Yaeger has a passion for equipping and empowering others through his firsthand experiences with the world’s most notable names in sports. For more information on the value Don can add to you and your team at your next function, click here.

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