7 leadership lessons from the Super Bowl
There are some great lessons to take from the recently played Super Bowl, and you do not need to be a football fan to appreciate them.
For those NFL fans out there, you’ll know exactly what happened on Monday afternoon (Australian EST). For those of you who do not follow the NFL, here’s a quick summary:
Last year’s Super bowl winners, the Seattle Seahawks, had achieved a 10 point lead over the New England Patriots going into the last quarter, no NFL team in history had ever won the super bowl coming from such a margin at three-quarter time; however, teams in the past didn’t have Tom Brady, arguably one of the game’s greatest ever quarterbacks of all-time, boasting 3 x Super bowl wins and 2 x Super bowl MVP awards going into the game.
After a poor start by his standards - making two crucial errors that handed possession of the ball to the other team; Tom Brady almost single-handedly re-wrote the record books in the final quarter, putting the New England Patriots into the lead following two touchdown passes with just 2 minutes remaining on the game clock. With history and momentum in their favour, victory over the Seahawks looked ominous. Russell Wilson, the Seahawks undersized playmaker (by NFL standards) quickly piloted the Seahawks to within 1 yard of their goal line with 20 seconds remaining and 4 opportunities in hand to advance the football the one-yard required for victory. What’s more, the Seahawks had Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch at their disposal, a hard-running, ball carrying machine, known to be the NFLs best performer in this situation. Everyone in the stadium including the most die-hard Patriots supporters would have been permitted to think a Seahawks victory was a fete a compli. What happened next stunned viewers around the world and has generated more water cooler conversation than any other NFL moment before it.
The Seahawks chose to pass the ball.
They neglected to take the safe, predictable, somewhat prescribed option to hand the ball to “Beast Mode” for a certain touchdown, instead, attempted a high-risk pass that was ultimately intercepted by the opposition, costing the Seahawks an almost certain victory.
Armchair experts around the world weighed–in on what a disaster this decision was, some saying it was the “dumbest play call in NFL history”. Many have suggested the coach be sacked, others have suggested a conspiracy theory as the only possible explanation, some even suggesting the head coach made the call on his own, against his assistant coaching staff’s wishes.
When interviewed after the game, Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll quashed all reports of conspiracy theories and dissent amongst the team, simply stating they thought the decision made was the best option to take at that time given the personnel on the field and considering the opposition defence.
Carroll added: “We don't ever call a play thinking we might throw an interception. I don't ever think that, just like the 11-yard TD pass to Matthews with six seconds to go in the half. We go with what we know. There was not a thought in my mind that we would make a mistake on the play. It was a tremendous play by the guy on the other side.”
For now, the Seahawks have stood beside Carroll as they should, as it was his great coaching that won them the Super bowl last year, and navigated them back to the big dance again this year. One mistake doesn’t change those facts. That said, there will no doubt be plenty of soul searching and what ifs to play out, and they will probably never go away, but it is what it is, and there is always next year. My advice to Pete would be: go and win it next year, then this year will be partly forgotten about.
So what can we learn from this that we can apply in the business world:
- Don’t let history dictate the present, or the future
Tom Brady never lost belief that he could overcome a record obstacle at the three-quarter time break, champions don’t see roadblocks, just challenges to overcome. The New England Patriots could’ve turned their thoughts to next year, deciding the challenge was too great, what a missed opportunity that would’ve been. Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can’t.
- It aint’ over until the clock shows 0:00
Late in the game when the Patriots hopes of winning were all but lost, a game changing moment took place handing victory to the New England team. No-one would’ve foreseen that happening, but you never know, the unexpected can and does happen – regularly. You are never out of the competition until the final siren goes, keep hustling.
- Don’t be afraid to make big play calls (decisions)
Coach Carroll summed it up perfectly “We don't ever call a play thinking we might throw an interception...”. The same applies to business, big plays (decisions) win big games, better to learn from decisions you made that didn’t work out, than to rue the one you didn’t make as they often cost you more. Take your chance and give it everything you have.
- Attack every play as if it is a winner, regardless of your position on the field
When making the big play calls as described in point 3 above, don’t let your current position/status override your judgement. Coach Carroll showed tremendous courage to follow his instinct to pass the ball, when the team’s field position and game status would normally mean they run the ball. Even though it didn’t work this time, Coach Carroll had been breaking paradigms resulting in winning games on the back of his instinct plenty of times, which led to their opportunity to be in a Super bowl winning position. Go with your gut.
- Support your team, and accept responsibility when things don’t work out
No one likes to lose or make decisions which don’t quite work out, but these are not grounds to make excuses for poor performance, or to blame others. Coach Carroll could’ve blamed a number of people, his Offensive Coach for example who is rumoured to have made the questionable play call - not Carroll; however as the Head Coach, Carroll recognises the buck stops with him. By accepting responsibility, and showing your team you are all in it together, you create a strong bond and team culture that leads to high performance in the future. Encourage your team to keep trying regardless of result, if someone makes a mistake, circle the wagons and deal with it.
- Don’t listen to the naysayers
The critics have been calling for Carrolls blood following his perceived lack of judgement in electing to pass not run, some saying it was “reckless”, “careless”, “irresponsible” and jarringly “the worst play call in NFL history”, others accusing him of attempting to make Russell Wilson the game-winner to drive marketing dollars – crazy stuff. Carroll could fall on his sword succumbing to the naysayers, and the Seahawks board could weigh-in delivering their piece of meat by sacking Carroll. Thankfully, for now, neither has happened. Don’t listen too intently to what others say, continue to back yourself, look in the mirror and listen to the only judge that matters – you.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try again – losing is not a habit
Although the New England Patriots are the most successful team in the past decade, they went into this year’s Super bowl on the back of two losses in their most recent Super bowl appearances. Faced with what history said was an insurmountable comeback required at three-quarter time, and recent losses replaying in the minds of fans, the Patriots looked to record their third straight Super bowl loss in a row. Indicative of a champion team, losing is not a habit at the Patriots, and they found a way to reverse the trend. The future is not yet written regardless of what history says, write your own.
Whether it’s the football field, the battle field or the boardroom table, the principles of great leadership are the same and we can learn from all formats.