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The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick rift spotlights the downside of tough management tactics

In an explosive article published on Friday, ESPN's Seth Wickersham reports that one of the most lauded partnerships in sports history, New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady and Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, may be on the rocks.

Though the Patriots have stated that Wickersham's article includes "several inaccuracies and multiple examples given that absolutely did not occur," over a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources have claimed that this central relationship between star quarterback and coach is not as healthy as it once was, and that this tension may hurt the Patriots' performance.

The apparent rift stems, in part, from Belichick's tough-love management style, Wickersham suggests, and the fact that the coach openly criticizes players, no matter how celebrated or successful.

Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks with Tom Brady #12 during the fourth quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on October 29, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Jim Rogash | Getty Images
Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks with Tom Brady #12 during the fourth quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on October 29, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Last year, Belichick told CNBC that not playing favorites and making it clear who's boss is central to his leadership style. "I don't care if they're a star player," he said at the time. "I don't care who they are. You have to set the tone."

That approach has seemed to work for Belichick and Brady in the past. Together, the pair have made seven Super Bowl appearances and won five rings. They've also won more regular season and postseason games than any other duo in NFL history.

"For years, Brady stood as the perfect model for Belichick's system, a future Hall of Famer who could withstand tough and biting coaching," Wickersham writes.

Several years ago, Brady's father even told Wickersham that the harsh criticism didn't affect the quarterback. "Tommy is fine with it," he said. "He's the perfect foil for it."

But Wickersham suggests it may not be sustainable, that years of public rebuke may have worn on the once impenetrable player. He highlights a recent Patriots game against the Buffalo Bills when Brady cursed out offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels after he was called out for a missed pass.

Brady later apologized for his outburst. "I want to apologize to Josh for last week in Buffalo," he told reporters. "I know our coaches work really hard and you know, they're responsible for putting us in a great position to succeed."

Management experts are split as to whether this kind of tough, critical style is the best approach for leading a team.

On the one hand, it can push top performers to be even better.

"When you build a relationship on trust, then the majority of people are OK with tough love," Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, tells Inc. "They'll rise to the occasion; some thrive on it."

Joanne Lipman, former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, tells Harvard Business Review that tough love is "the mark of a true mentor: a leader who creates a culture of excellence, and whose confidence in us makes us better than we ever dreamed we could be."

On the other hand, being too heavy-handed could stifle growth. That's why many managers prefer a more supportive approach, cultivating self-awareness in their reports and providing positive reinforcement.

Former Google career coach Jenny Blake, for instance, is not convinced that tough love is a necessary element of management. Despite what Machiavelli said, great leaders don't have to be feared, they just need to listen, Blake explains to CNBC Make It.

And while Brady might appreciate feedback, his fraying relationship with the coaching staff may exemplify the risks of this unforgiving management approach.

Tom Brady walks past head coach Bill Belichick
Jim Rogash | Getty Images
Tom Brady walks past head coach Bill Belichick

In the past, winning championships has allowed Brady and Belichick to overcome controversies like "Spygate" and "Deflategate."

"A fifth Super Bowl triumph healed some of those wounds, but there's no guarantee that a sixth will fix the rest," writes Wickersham. "Something has to change, that much everyone knows."

Indeed, Belichick himself has emphasized the importance of making adjustments. Success, he says, "is not all about talent. It's about dependability, consistency, being coachable and understanding what you need to do to improve."

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