Why there aren't more people like Buddy Ryan in business

Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan is carried off the field by the team after the Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX on Jan. 26, 1986, in New Orleans.
Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan is carried off the field by the team after the Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX on Jan. 26, 1986, in New Orleans. (AP)

You know why you don't see more people like the late great football coach Buddy Ryan in business?

It's because there aren't a lot of organizations in any field that would accommodate him. There aren't a lot of us who could handle working for him, and there are fewer still who would be able to handle him under them.


What makes men like this great can also make them grate.

Ryan, who died Tuesday at 85, was a critical factor in making the 1985 Chicago Bears the 1985 Chicago Bears as their defensive coordinator. Tellingly, he's the only non-head coach ever carried off the field by players after a Super Bowl, his guys elevating him while others carried head coach Mike Ditka.

It was the last game with the Bears for Ryan, who nearly came to blows with Ditka in a locker room at Miami during halftime of the team's only loss that season. For the Bears, it was the last — and only — Super Bowl victory celebration.

Ryan was, without question, a shrewd tactician who won the undying loyalty of those who played for him. He tore down men, built back up those who rose to the challenge and led them brilliantly, getting the most possible from them as individuals and as a group.

He could be merciless and coarse in his assessment of players' performances, shaming them in front of their teammates. But those tough enough to take it, strong enough to use it as incentive, grew both closer to each other and to their master.

Yet the same stubborn toughness, candor and fearless self-certainty with which Ryan challenged, pushed and prodded players, he was almost too eager to employ to challenge and needle those above him and elsewhere.

No one was immune. Not peers. Not owners. Not general managers.

Success buys a certain amount of tolerance, but it is not limitless. As much as he was loved by his men, others loathed him and that kind of ill will has a way of eroding even the strongest support and discouraging others from association.

Even Gen. George Patton found his career stymied as World War II wound down.

The pity is too many managers are reluctant enough as it is to put up with those mildly resistant to falling in line behind marching orders. Some act as if asking questions or offering suggestions is a form of disloyalty.

Honest disagreements are useful. You don't have to like everyone with whom you work. You don't have to agree. But you have to be respectful of them and they of you. If you can't do that, someone has to go.

The work of having to build consensus by winning over converts can yield smarter strategies because others may have insights and criticisms that would otherwise be overlooked and unaddressed in a crowd of dull-eyed yes-men (and yes-women).

When it becomes too heated or personal, however, the whole process breaks down. There inevitably comes a time when leaders must make a choice, and then the team has to come together behind it. Allowing a group to operate independently can lead to trouble.

As a CEO at, say, a carmaker, you better know what your engineers or legal team is deciding, because you and your company will be held responsible and you stand to go down with the share price.


When Bears owner George Halas hired Ditka as head coach in 1981, one condition was that Ditka keep Ryan as a holdover from the previous regime. Halas was moved to act, at least in part, because of a letter from a group of Ryan's loyal players on his behalf.

Ditka, on the official flow chart, was Ryan's boss. But that was tested from the start when Ditka said he wanted to run a defense with which he was familiar from serving on Tom Landry's staff in Dallas, and Ryan said no and threatened to leave.

Ryan, history will show, was right. The 46 Defense he was perfecting made the Bears champions.

"Never again in history will an assistant coach get as much credit as Buddy did," Ditka said.

We want more Ryans. We may need more Ryans. But actually working with Ryans, like achieving greatness, perhaps requires more of us than most of us can muster.

Twitter @phil_rosenthal