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Once Again, Bowlen's Leadership Evident

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Leadership is not about micromanagement, pushing others aside and doing everything. Nor is it about sitting on a throne and issuing edicts. Leadership is about empowering others and setting an example to follow.

As the Broncos' owner and chief executive officer, Pat Bowlen did that for three decades. Even as he grappled with Alzheimer's disease in recent years, he led with a strong, dignified presence. As always, he was visible on the practice field and the sideline, but not overbearing; he let the people he entrusted with football and business operations do what they do best.

As Bowlen steps away from day-to-day stewardship of the Broncos, he offers another example in leadership: how to walk away while leaving behind an organization that is exponentially greater than the one he purchased. This should come as no surprise; Bowlen has always understood the various tenets of leadership, and how to get results at every step.

He's always known leadership is about giving credit where it is due. Sixteen years ago, he stood on a podium at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, held aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy and said, "This one's for John." In four words, Bowlen offered a deep, sincere appreciation for a member of his organization who was empowered to help lead the way to victory.

A year later, on the other side of the continent, Bowlen received his second Lombardi Trophy, and saluted the fans whose support made the on- and off-field success of the organization possible, "This one's for you!" The supporters have been vital to the organization since two decades before Bowlen became the Broncos' owner in 1984. He had become the fans' leader, too -- and a great leader always knows how to take care of the individuals who make collective success possible.

Bowlen's ownership was defined by the results that grew from his leadership; no owner ever got to 300 wins faster. His leadership often came by example, as the long-time triathlon competitor kept a schedule as rigorous in its own way as the Ironman itself.

That's why if you drove by Dove Valley late at night in the 1990's and 2000's, you'd often see lights ablaze in the big office overlooking the practice fields. For other staffers working through the late-night hours, it was no surprise to see Bowlen there, hard at work, as was the case after 10 p.m. one March Sunday several years ago.

Work for Bowlen has always been more than just running the Broncos, and this evening was no exception. The NFL owners' meetings, where Bowlen had a myriad of responsibilities, were quickly approaching. His work at these meetings defined his legacy as much as his duties at Dove Valley: chairmanship of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee, former chairmanship of the Broadcasting Committee and work on various other owners' committees, including the one that oversaw the creation of the NFL Network.

His contributions in these realms were colossal. The NFL's television revenues have soared, a reflection of how it used television to grow its prominence on the American social and cultural landscape. The league has not lost a regular-season game to labor strife in nearly 27 years, more than seven years longer than any other major professional sport.  

He leaves the NFL in a far better place than he found it 30 years ago. His vision and experience helped the league prepare for its future. Thus, it is no surprise that one of his last -- and most enduring --  contributions to the Broncos is the creation of the Pat Bowlen Trust, a group of non-family trustees that assures the club's stability for the future and was part of Bowlen's succession plan to continue family ownership of the team.

When you think of some of the NFL's most stable franchises, you think of families, enduring through generations. The Rooneys in Pittsburgh. The Maras with the New York Giants. The Halases and McCaskeys in Chicago. Family ownership is a common thread of such flagship organizations. And in these cases, the family business is football. The trust provides the best chance of assuring that future for the Broncos.

"Although we wish Pat were in better health, he developed a plan many years ago for the continuation of his values with the hope of keeping the Broncos in the Bowlen family," Bowlen's wife, Annabel, said in a statement. "I know that his goals will be effectively implemented by Joe Ellis, who has worked with Pat for nearly his entire ownership of the Broncos."

Ellis was on the staff when Bowlen bought the Broncos. In the three decades since, Bowlen has been his mentor. The depth of Bowlen's trust was revealed when Ellis represented the team at the league's ownership meetings this year. He learned how Bowlen ran an organization, how he conducted business, and is now crucial to making Bowlen's contribution an enduring one.

That reveals Bowlen's final gift to the Broncos and their fans before focusing on his battle with Alzheimer's: the structure for a graceful, smooth transition. No power struggles. No internal tugs-of-war for influence. The Broncos will be run tomorrow as they were the day before. The lofty expectations that have defined a 30-year run that included two world championships, six conference titles, 11 AFC West crowns and 16 playoff appearances will remain unchanged -- as will the ability to commit the financial resources to meet those expectations.

Nevertheless, this moment is one of profound sadness for the Broncos, Bowlen, his family, and friends. The notion of him leaving an everyday role once seemed unfathomable. For many fans, he is the only owner they've ever known. This is a man who often said he would be carried out of Dove Valley "in a pine box."

Circumstances changed that. Alzheimer's disease changed that. But on a team and league level, Bowlen has long been prepared for the unexpected. Like the best of his coaches, he always has a game plan -- and trust in the people to execute it. They have a difficult task, but they have the faith of Bowlen, even if they will no longer have his daily presence at the office.

His focus now must be on his health and the challenges posed by Alzheimer's. No one is better equipped to handle this struggle than Bowlen, who has tackled as many challenges in the physical fitness arena as he did in business -- and succeeded without fail. The philosophy he set for the Broncos was simple: "to be No. 1 in everything." Now the former triathlete will focus on being No. 1 in fighting a disease that affects one out of every nine people 65 or older.

As he steps away, the organization he leaves behind is in secure hands, just as it has been since the day he first walked into the Logan Street headquarters on Denver's north side. He will continue to lead, but in a different way, now -- by example to the millions who struggle, directly or indirectly, with Alzheimer's.

His leadership is now defined by courage and resilience. It is equal to anything from the last 30 years.

And it is another line in a lengthy legacy that is still being written.

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