A Lesson on Leadership from a National Stage

I’ll admit it, I’m a huge fan of football. I play fantasy football each year (won the work league this year!), I read quite a bit of the behind the scenes stuff, and I very much like the actual strategy part of the game.

What I really like doing these days is drawing leadership lessons from what goes on in the NFL and its teams on a national stage.

For those that follow the sport, 2015 was a banner year for leadership lessons. I would love to go into them each in depth, though for this post I’m going to focus on just one; the January 9th wild card game between the Pitssburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

It’s important to have a bit of context from the game (for full context, see end of post). The Bengals and Steelers are two teams that define the word “sports rivalry”. By all accounts many of the players on both teams genuinely dislike each other. This is evident when they play twice a year. Those games are always some of the most penalized and littered with unsportsmanlike penalties. It doesn’t help the Bengals that their organization has a reputation for choking while the Steelers are seen as champions.

This game, though, was thought to be different. It was one of the first times the Bengals had a legitimate shot of beating the Steelers in the playoffs and putting the shoe on the other foot. This was supposed to be Cincinnati’s year. And it almost was, except it wasn’t. The Bengals lost 18–16 on a last second field goal. It wasn’t because the players and coaches themselves completely lost this game.

There were many penalties and the game itself was back and forth. With less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, both teams looked like they secured a victory several times. The final blow came with :18 left in the game. Vontaze Burfict (Bengals) was flagged for a 15 yard penalty for a hit on a defenceless receiver. This description does not do the play justice. Burfict seemed to be head hunting and looking to deliver a knock out blow. It very much looked like a selfish (and dangerous) play. The opposing player was injured on the play and during the clock stoppage to attend to the injured player, Adam Jones (also Bengals) was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for aggressively engaging with an assistant coach from the Steelers (Porter), who was on the field to see to the injured player. Note, Porter should not have been on the field and likely should also have received a penalty, though this fact does not excuse Jones’ behavior. These penalties cumulatively gave the Pittsburgh Steelers 30 free yards, taking them from outside field goal range to well within field goal range. The resulting field goal ultimately proved the game winner. Pittsburgh was gifted 30 yards at the end of an NFL playoff game to win the game because of undisciplined play and undisciplined behavior by the opposing team.

Fundamentally yesterday’s loss is on Marvin Lewis, head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Many will argue that Burfict and Jones lost the game, and technically, yes, they are right. However Lewis allowed this situation to unfold either implicitly or explicitly. The leadership lesson here is how that happened, what to do about it and where to go from here.

If I was the GM or the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals neither Vontaze Burfict nor Adam Jones would be on the team next season. Further, following their departures, Lewis would stand up in front of the team and apologize, make amends, tell everyone he let them down by not having the proper expectations, setting the right discipline environment, having the proper accountability culture, and that going into next season those will be in place and very clear.

Burfict and Jones are two of Cincinnati’s best players on defence and Cincinnati had a very good defence this year. Their stature as locker-room leaders and star players makes their exit even more crucial. It’s easy when you hold a practice squad player accountable or you release a little used special teams player for making mistakes. When you release two of your stars you send a message. That message needs to be sent in Cincinnati and the culture needs to be rebuilt starting with their exit.

Finally, if I’m the Cincinnati Bengals owner, the GM and Lewis’ job are up for a strong review. Lewis has been the head coach in Cincinnati since 2003. If he has not established a culture of accountability by now, he is simply not doing his job. Perhaps he and the GM collectively agreed to have a different bias during the early years of Lewis’ tenure. Perhaps they were biasing for short-term wins or trying to build momentum or winning faith in ownership. That would be well and good if this was a second or third year head coach. But not for someone finishing their 12th season in an organization. That is unacceptable, bordering on pure negligence. If I’m ownership and I decide to not let Lewis go, he has an incredibly short leash next year and the expectation would be he build the aforementioned culture.

“The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate” — Gruenter and Whitacker

Why is this so important? Sports can be a win at all costs game, as can be tech, but those that watch enough sports know that the organizations that are successful long-term, those which have sustained success are results oriented while being accountable and having discipline. It’s possible to have both, though it’s harder and takes more leadership, it takes more discipline. My contention is this also holds true in tech organizations.

This, effectively, is the crux of the matter. What type of organization do you want? Do you want to win at all costs, doesn’t matter how horrid, how toxic or how dysfunctional? These types very rarely have sustained success. They might have meteoric rises, even huge peaks, but they typically have sharp drop-offs and the lows can be historic. Think Enron.

If instead you want the same heights with sustained success, shoot for a culture of discipline, accountability and properly set expectations. These are traits needed by all long-term successful organizations. They are not all the traits, though they do form the basis by which the rest are built. It might take a bit longer, it likely will be harder, though the sustained results outweigh any short-term loss or slowdown.

The take home lesson here is about culture of accountability, discipline and properly set expectations. These are traits needed by all long-term successful organizations whether they be professional sports or a high-tech start-up. Further, these are traits need by all organizational styles. It doesn’t matter if you believe in flat, hierarchical, autonomous, holocracy or other, everyone needs to know what is acceptable and what is not. Everyone needs to know what is expected of them, what liberties they have, and where the line is drawn. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t leading. This is not the fun part of leadership and it often gets overlooked. Instead of putting this off for more enjoyable pursuits, take the time and energy up front to define these so everyone can enjoy the more fun aspects of their jobs. It’s much easier to keep cultural momentum than to change culture. Attack small problems before they have the chance to become big problems. Do it early when it’s easier, keep it going, stay vigilant and guard against regression.

It’s much easier to keep cultural momentum than to change culture. Attack small problems before they have the chance to become big problems.

Supporting context and full recap of the January 9th wild card game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

ESPN Game Recap

ESPN Blog — Bengals lose discipline, poise late in chippy wild-card loss to Steelers — Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones were both assessed 15 yard penalties with :18 to go in the game, ultimately costing the Bengals the win. At the time, The Bengals were leading 16–15 with the Steelers out of field goal range. The penalties, a cumulative 30 yards, allowed the Steelers a high percentage field goal try that was successful and ultimately the winning score.

Blog — Steelers leave Cincinnati bruised, battered — and alive in AFC playoffs

Blog — Players & Coachs Up/Down for the game — Read the one on Mike Munchack, assistant coach for Pittsburgh Steelers. Munchack was assessed an unsportsmanlike penalty early in the game for apparently pulling the hair of a Bengal player on the Steelers sideline after a play.

ESPN Blog — Source: NFL to Fine Joey Porter — Joey Porter, ex-Steeler player now coach, was on the field while medical staff was attending to an injured Steeler. Porter and Jones (below) shared words while Porter was on the field.

ESPN Blog — CB Adam Jones rips ref on Instagram, then deletes post — Adam Jones, Bengals, was called for a 15 yard unsportsmanlike penalty that resulted in the game winning field goal for Steelers. Jones was engaging Joey Porter (above) on the field while medical staff was attending to an injured player.

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