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#NFL Case Studies – Leadership Starts At The Top

NFL coaches, leadership

NFL Coaches: Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips (Images from Wikipedia biographies)

I became motivated to write this post while watching the Dallas Cowboys self-destruct against the New York Giants.

The Dallas Cowboys are widely considered the most under-achieving NFL football team over the last decade. In many cases, they have to get downright creative to find a way to lose the game. It is my assertion that this losing culture starts at the top. Although the Cowboys prompted this post, I will use four different case studies to illustrate my point:

1. The Leader is Not Ready

Bill Belichick, “The Hoodie”, got his first head coaching opportunity with the original Cleveland Browns. He already had about 16 years of assistant coaching experience, and his New York Giants defensive game plan for the Super Bowl win against the Buffalo Bills is now in the Hall of Fame. You would think he would be ready for that next step!

However, Belichick had not been coached on the softer skills necessary to survive as an NFL head coach. Head coaches do not have a specialty – they have to give that up to their assistant coaches. Instead, they become the team mouthpiece to the entire team (not just the offense, defense, linebackers, etc). They also have a huge commitment to public relations as well as the NFL draft and free agency considerations. Brusque and secretive does not work well in the public eye, and Belichick compounded the effects of losing seasons by playing things “close to the vest” with the media.

Leadership Lesson: We should prepare our leaders to be better “generalists” with vision and strong communication skills. Those communication skills become their biggest weapon both within the organization and to the outside world.

The Leader Lacks Blend of Confidence and Humility

It is ironic that my next case study, Josh McDaniels, is a Belichick protege. He also exhibited the same characteristics: near genius in his specialty (offensive coordinator in this case) while lacking in social skills. Where Belichick came across as brusque, McDaniels exuded a youthful arrogance that left no room for public forgiveness when the losses started piling up.

  • His “my way or the highway” attitude decimated the team’s star power when he traded away Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall (and other well-loved skill players). Leadership Lesson: Rally support from your organization’s stars – do not put them “on notice” before developing the relationship.
  • His “I’m smarter than the rest of the league” drafting of Tim Tebow further setback the team’s development. Leadership Lesson: Use more conventional wisdom, and seek counsel and consensus, to get some team successes under your belt before going for the high risk gamble with the company’s future on the line.
  • His SpyGate scandal tarnished the integrity of the Denver Broncos. Leadership Lesson: When all else fails, maintain your integrity.

The Leader Can’t Always Be The Best Friend

Jason Garrett is the Dallas Cowboys head coach with three glaring weaknesses: (1) He had very little experience even at the assistant coach level, (2) he is dealing with a brash, meddling owner with a history of exerting influence on coaching decisions, and (3) his sideline demeanor is closer to a “commiserating ex-player” than a head coach demanding accountability from his players.

Leadership Lessons: Acknowledging that entrepreneurs sometimes succeed with old-fashioned creativity and work ethic, larger organizations are best served with seasoned leaders. These leaders can also strike a balance between accepting counsel from a charismatic ex-leader or board, and not becoming a “yes-man”. Finally, leaders know they need to separate themselves from the “best friend” zone, so they can hold their employees accountable for performance.

The Leader is Too Far Removed from Comfort Zone

Our final case study has Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys connections: Wade Phillips. Phillips is a likeable, easy-going personality who happens to be a defensive genius. His successes developing strong defenses at Philadelphia, Denver, San Diego – and most recently the Houston Texans – always put him at the top of the lists when teams are hiring a new head coach. However, his career head-coaching record is only 83-64.

Leadership Lesson: Some personalities are more suited to being the “key employee” specialist in a certain area (like VP of Sales or Data Architect) or perhaps simply the “glue that keeps it all together” that acts as the barometer for company morale. To take them out of their comfort zone is to do both them and your organization a disservice.

What did you learn from this week’s NFL games? Have you seen organizations with leadership matching these case studies? What did they do to position the organization to succeed – weather the trials while leadership matures, or replace the leadership?

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Brian Vickery

I love my Vickery Girls - and grandsons! My career has blessed me to the point I was able to start a new consultancy in 2018: Analytic Integrity. I look to provide analytic experience, and business integrity, to an Analytics world while helping data-driven organizations mature. I enjoy teaching and coaching, watching football and basketball, and playing tennis. I graduated UT-Austin.

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  1. I think this is a great comparison between coaching and being in leadership in the workplace (which a coach is the leadership in his workplace). I’ll have to pay attention to the coaches this week since I missed most of the games today (except the tail end of the Falcons/Cowboys game). I actually think I’m more of a key player than a leader, and I’m completely fine with that. It suits me well. I can step in when the leadership is gone, and step back out when they come back! ps Go Vikings!

    • Key players are great at stepping into the gap in the absence of leadership (interim coaches). Otherwise, they do what they do best – directly contribute their expertise to the success of the team or organization. Wade Phillips is a great example. He is an outstanding defensive coordinator, and players also enjoy playing for him. He can fill the gap without losing the team, but he best serves that team as a coordinator versus a head coach.


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