Finding a way to replace Ray Lewis' leadership skills when he retires

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It's one of the signature scenes in Baltimore sports and one that could play out for the final time Sunday when the Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts in an opening-round playoff game.

Ray Lewis, No. 52, circles his teammates and stomps from one to the next, pressing his face within inches of each man, looking deep into their eyes.

"What time is it?" he shouts.

"Game time," they chant in unison.

"Any dogs in the house?" he bellows.

"Woof, woof, woof," they bark before taking the field at M&T Bank Stadium.

Lewis, who announced Wednesday that he would retire at the end of the season, is by consensus one of the greatest players in NFL history and one of the greatest athletes to play in Baltimore. But as the Ravens reckon with life after No. 52, they talk more about his wisdom and the ways he has touched them personally than about his on-field skills, which have slipped in recent seasons.

The familiar pregame ritual is the most visible sign of Lewis' leadership, but teammates and coaches say it only scratches the surface of his efforts to guide those around him. In fact, some regard the act as misleading, a bit of vaudeville that distracts from the qualities that really make Lewis important — the example he sets with tireless offseason workouts, hours of at-home film study and his willingness to talk teammates through tough times.

"To me, what you see sometimes is Ray is a very motivational guy, very motivational when he talks, when he gives a speech, when he comes onto the field — all those kinds of things," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "But the things that we see or I see as a coach — and I've been blessed to be around a lot of really excellent linebackers — the thing Ray is, he is the best example anybody could ever be as a teammate. For every young player that comes in, to watch a guy that has been in this league 17 years sit there and take notes and look like a rookie back there in the meeting room, to me, it's phenomenal."

It might not be terribly difficult for the Ravens to replace Lewis as a guy who runs around the field and makes tackles. Statistics show their defense this season has been better without him in many ways. But as the leader of a perpetually successful franchise? Teammates say no one man will fill his shoes.

"The leadership quality goes beyond just football," cornerback Cary Williams said. "He's a great motivator. He can motivate you to get off the streets. He can motivate you to get up and do something in your life. He's touched a lot of lives. He's touched mine and those of some of my family members who don't even know him."

Williams said there are other leaders in the locker room, from outspoken linebacker Terrell Suggs to quarterback Joe Flacco.

"But a vocal leader of Ray's caliber is virtually unreplaceable," Williams said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. You don't find those around the league. I don't think there's another one like him."

Leadership is a quality often tossed around in sports but rarely well-defined. Lewis makes an interesting case study because he so nakedly sought the mantle, both inside the locker room and in public view.

Many players refuse to engage when asked about their leadership qualities. But Lewis frequently refers to the Ravens as "my team" and to his unit as "my defense." He began to describe himself as a leader as early as his second season. By the middle of his career, he had decided he was a shaper of men as much as a football player.

"I realized that I can do a lot of things to be great individually, but I wanted to be known differently," he said Wednesday in describing his legacy. "I wanted to make men better. I wanted to figure out ways to challenge men to not let the game dictate your emotions and not let the game dictate if you are mad, you're glad, you're sad — no. Be who you are as a man. Walk with who you are as a man and be OK with being a man. So, my whole focus changed, kind of almost in the middle of my career."

Lewis loves to talk about the locker-room leaders he studied as a young player — Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett. They taught him everything from how to center himself spiritually to how hard he had to work in the offseason.

"I was blessed to have some great guys who took me up under their wing and said, 'This is the way you should pray about life. This is the way you should live life,' " he recalled.

Lewis badly wanted to be that figure for younger players on the Ravens and eventually, for players around the league.

He even announced his retirement in a way calculated to make his trademark dance from the tunnel during player introductions on Sunday an inspirational moment for teammates and fans.

Fellow Ravens buy into Lewis' leadership style to differing degrees. Running back Ray Rice, who sits beside him in the locker room, talks about Lewis as a second father who shaped him emotionally through long talks about their respective personal stories. Other Ravens are more apt to stand quietly on the periphery while Lewis gives his fire-and-brimstone talks about seizing the moment. Some take a middle road, gently poking fun at his histrionics while paying homage to his overall importance in the organization.

"We joke about it sometimes," Williams said. "But it's all in good fun, and at the end of the day, those words that he said set in. It takes root in your heart."

Setting the example

The concept of charismatic leadership goes back to 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber and is often discussed in the business world, especially when a renowned executive, such as Apple CEO Steve Jobs, hands over power.

The consensus among those who study leadership is that such transitions are perilous for organizations, especially when the force of the leader's personality is a major factor in driving performance. Sony and Microsoft are among companies that have lost momentum in recent decades after the departure of deified CEOs.

The transitions tend to be more successful, analysts say, when the leader has imbued the organization with enduring principles.

Losing Lewis is not comparable to losing a CEO, said Gilad Chen, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"I think the more relevant comparison there would be to losing a charismatic coach," Chen said. "This is more a case of losing an internal leader. The impact on the fans who love him, and the players who look up to him is noticeable. But it's easier to replace a player like Ray Lewis, especially when his ability to do his job on the field has diminished, than it is to replace the leader at the top of the organization."

There's no questioning the force of Lewis' personality. Anyone who has watched his pre-game speeches knows they have the feel of tent revivals. But Ravens teammates and coaches say he's the type of leader who goes beyond mere charisma and actually models effective behavior for those around him.

Players noticed, for example, how Lewis worked out up to seven times a day in the offseason and came to his 17thtraining camp 25 pounds lighter. They saw how hard he pushed to come back from a torn triceps, usually a season-ending injury.

"All he has ever been is a Raven, so to me, he exemplifies what you want to be as a Ravens defensive football player," Pees said. "For the guys like the Josh Bynes and the [Dannell] Ellerbes, [Jameel] McClains and all those guys to be around somebody like that, of that caliber, not only as a player but as guy in the classroom, just how to be a pro ... yeah, it'll have a long-lasting effect on us."

Williams, who has played four seasons with Lewis, called him the ultimate professional.

"All the little things mean so much to him," the Ravens cornerback said. "And you look at that as a young guy, and you model yourself after that as best you can."

"I think the model's more important than the vocalness," linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo added. "I mean, the vocal makes him kind of a spiritual leader, but the model, the blueprint … he's the greatest of all time, so you can't really refute that."

Spreading the message

Lewis believes in himself as a leader to such a degree that he has taken his show on the road in recent years, giving pregame talks to everyone from the Stanford basketball team to the little-known football team at Elon University in North Carolina.

One such talk came this spring, when Lewis met with the Loyola men's lacrosse team the week before its NCAA playoff game with the University of Denver. The talk was arranged by Ravens vice president Pat Moriarty, whose son, Kevin, played on the team.

Loyola coach Charley Toomey had never seen his players give such rapt attention to a speaker. "The only problem was that we had to tone our guys down after he was done," Toomey recalled. "We didn't want them to run through a wall the Wednesday before the game."

Toomey saw in Lewis a rare and genuine ability to connect, one that would work as well in sales as in sports. The Greyhounds went on to win the national title. But Toomey is now dealing with the same issue the Ravens will confront post-Lewis — how to replace J.P. Dalton, the captain who kept everyone else on track last season. He said such leadership is a tangible asset.

"I haven't seen it very much, but boy, when you've got it, you want to bottle it," Toomey said.

He then segued back to a moment from Lewis' speech. Lewis noticed a few of the Loyola players cradling jugs of water for pre-practice hydration. That was the right way to prepare, he barked. Why didn't he see similar jugs in every hand?

"The next day," Toomey said in his final verdict on Lewis' leadership, "every guy in the room had a jug of water."