Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from a Legendary Sports Franchise Owner

It’s been said that the most important position in a sports franchise is the owner; and I tend to agree. My all time favorite owner that I’d like to talk about in this week’s Thoughts on Leadership is, Edward John DeBartolo Jr., an American businessman, who is perhaps best known as the former owner of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.

DeBartolo is the son of legendary entrepreneur Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., who pioneered the shopping mall concept and built some of the most well known retail landmarks in the nation. DeBartolo Jr. developed shopping malls as part of his father's company, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., which became one of the largest public real estate businesses in the United States. At one point, the company controlled over 2 billion square feet of retail real estate space nationwide.

For more than six decades, the DeBartolo name has been legendary in the real estate industry. Following in his father’s footsteps, Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., has maintained the family tradition working in real estate, and has earned recognition as one of the most successful and generous owners in the history of professional sports.

Beyond his real estate background, DeBartolo was actively involved in franchise ownership and sports management. His ownership of the San Francisco 49ers proved especially notable. During his 23 years owning the 49ers, beginning in 1977, “Mr. D,” as his players call him, won an unprecedented five Super Bowls under coaches Bill Walsh and George Seifert, Super Bowl XVI, Super Bowl XIX, Super Bowl XXIII, Super Bowl XXIV, and Super Bowl XXIX. From the early 1980s through the 1990s, DeBartolo presided over a team that had the most wins in one decade in football history.

Just yesterday I met up with Dwight Clark, All-Pro Bowl wide receiver for the 49ers (1979-1987), most famous for “The Catch” on January 10, 1982. He played under the leadership of Bill Walsh and Edward DeBartolo Jr. In speaking with Clark, his admiration of DeBartolo Jr. was clear.

“He was one of us and was so good to us. He treated us all first class, but in return he had incredibly high expectations for us and made those expectations very clear to each of us. He was more like a father figure instead of an owner. We wanted to win for Eddie D.” said Clark.

DeBartolo Jr. has built his career around the same principles that helped his father make the DeBartolo name a real estate icon. He has a reputation for being one of the most passionate, well-liked figures in the league. It’s the same commitment to passionate leadership and strong relationships that has led him to success in everything he touches.

I think the strong leadership lesson in looking at a success like DeBartolo is not only the high expectations he had for his team and the passion that drove him, but also his ability to connect with the people he was leading, to motivate them and give them clear goals to work toward. This is leading from within. When you have passion that is evident and extend it to others, they will follow and succeed.

As leaders, each day is an opportunity to learn from Edward DeBartolo Jr. and ignite passion in those we lead. Each day is a chance to build on our relationships, setting expectations and igniting excitement to achieve our team goals.