Leadership lessons from football – part 2 of 2

24 Jan

Part 1 of “Leadership lessons from football” presented five nonprofit leadership lessons from the New England Patriots’ ascent to near dynasty status. In Part 2, I offer five additional leadership principles from the football field.These lessons play out on the nonprofit field as well.

Part 1 of “Leadership lessons from football” presented five nonprofit leadership lessons from the New England Patriots’ ascent to near dynasty status. Those principles are:

  1. Opportunity lies everywhere if you’re looking, and acting on what you see
  2. Everyone is valuable, and everyone must know it
  3. Job descriptions are just a starting point for what people can do
  4. Understand that risk has benefits
  5. Tomorrow depends on today

In Part 2, I offer five additional leadership principles from the football field. These lessons play out on the nonprofit field as well.

  1. Focus on execution as much as strategy. During their rise, the Pats bested opponents by executing a wider variety of plays more consistently than anyone else. They built strong capacity to execute strategy, and focused on this capacity across the organization from recruitment and retention to reward systems.
  2. Don’t settle for excellence. At post-game interviews when the Pats were most dominant, it was difficult to tell if the team had won. Coaches and players always highlighted what needed improvement. They didn’t assert that they’d arrived at excellence; that would mean they couldn’t improve. 
  3. No one is irreplaceable, and everyone must know it. As the Pats have consistently demonstrated in releasing “high maintenance” players or players whose skills no longer fit team strategy, they haven’t let any player become irreplaceable. With resources saved from catering to big egos, the Pats invested in new players who deepened team talent.
  4. If there’s no rule against it, you can do it. To illustrate this, I draw from the pre-Belichick Pats, because  it’s the best example of what still characterizes the team today. It’s famous in NFL lore as the 1982 “snowplow game” leading to a “snowplow rule”.  Playing in blizzard conditions and locked in a scoreless tie, late in the fourth quarter, the Pats moved into field goal range. During a timeout, the head coach requested that a snowplow on the sidelines clear a path through the deep snow where the ball would be placed for the kicker. The kick was successful, and the Pats won!
  5. It is what it is. Sometimes their opponents played a better game, but the Pats were the best at moving on whether they’d won or lost. They understood that what had already happened couldn’t be changed. They understood “what is”, consistently.

What’s been going wrong lately is that the Patriots have fallen away from some key principles, and grown overzealous with others. They’ve not adjusted their strategy to their execution capacity. They’ve leaned too heavily on a few star players as irreplaceable, and shed others too lightly. By only pursuing players and opportunities that fit the current system, the Pats have lost continuity in player development: most team members are either long time veterans or very young players. They’ve damaged their reputation as a team of integrity, taking the “if there’s no rule” principle too far by spying on opponents. Finally, while they still take risks by, for example, attempting fourth down conversions with above average frequency, they don’t have the strength to back up that daring.

I’ll always be a Patriots fan: it’s truly in my blood. This past season might just be an aberration in an otherwise sustainable dynasty. But I doubt it.  I do know these leadership lessons give me caution against heavy handed application of what’s brought the Patriots success.

-Kathi Jaworski