Leadership lessons from football – part 1 of 2

23 Jan

I’m an unapologetic football fan! After a successful decade approaching sports dynasty status, the New England Patriots are now back in the middle of the pack. The dynasty is a “could have been.” In the time saved by divesting my energy from the Pats-free playoffs, I’ve distilled key leadership lessons from the journey to the top of the NFL, and now the journey down.

The Pacific Northwest is my home, but my original roots are in New England, another nice place. Though I’ve lived away for a dozen years, I still miss regional specialties like scrod, real maple syrup, sharp white Vermont cheddar, tart McIntosh apples and the New England Patriots football team!

As I grew up in a Patriots household, the team was perennially terrible. Our family ate more than one Sunday dinner in silence after lopsided losses. Eventually, the Pats had a smattering of decent seasons. Finally, in the team’s fifth decade, the Pats emerged as ridiculously good through inventive, unorthodox practices. As an executive director inspired by their success, I used the team as my nonprofit management model. And yes, I said that out loud. My staff once gave me a wonderful gift featuring my oft-invoked saying; “It is what it is”. What’s scary is that until I heard it attributed one too many times to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, I thought “it is what it is” was actually my own quirky saying. So, you can say I’m a fan! It is what it is.

After a successful decade approaching sports dynasty status, the New England Patriots are now back in the middle of the pack. The dynasty is a “could have been.” In the time saved by divesting my energy from the Pats-free playoffs, I’ve distilled key leadership principles from the journey to the top of the NFL, and now the journey down. Here’s part 1 of lessons learned during the upward climb.

  • Opportunity lies everywhere if you’re looking, and acting on what you see. The Pats have been legendary for drafting players “out of nowhere” who then emerged as NFL stars. They looked in unusual places for young players, and recognized diamond-in-the-rough potential before anyone else did. They also seized upon the experience and leadership of veteran players who’d been written off by other teams as past their prime, with great success.
  • Everyone is valuable, and everyone must know it. Due to the complexity of their playbook, the Pats have been known for rotating many players in and out of each game. While individual records have been rare because so many players have taken the field, the collective win-loss record was stellar. The Pats culture reinforced “collective” winning. After the Pats won their first Superbowl, quarterback Tom Brady appeared in a popular credit card advertisement. He was only willing to do the advertisement if his offensive linemen, his protection, could be incorporated. And they were there!
  • Job descriptions are just a starting point for what people can do. The Pats have been renowned for their depth of talent. Multiple players have been skilled at multiple positions. Defensive linebacker Mike Vrabel exemplified this when he rotated into the offensive lineup as a clutch play tight end. The Pats built a culture that valued multiple, versatile skills throughout the team.
  • Understand that risk has benefits- Bill Belichick built his coaching reputation on fastidious preparation and analysis. He’s also been famous for calling surprising, high stakes plays. Two factors underlie the Pats’ smart risk management; superior knowledge of true statistical risks, and having the goods– the player skills and the play design– to back up daring attitude. The Pats have successfully understood the risks inherent at each stage of the game, and executed plays that harnessed risk to their benefit.
  • Tomorrow depends on today. The Pats have been famous for boring pre-game press conferences. Everyone to a person has focused on the game at hand, period; not trash talk in the press, playoff speculations or pundit predictions. They’ve never appeared to take the outcome of their immediate challenge for granted.

Part 2 to come!

-Kathi Jaworski