"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shackleton, Andrew Luck, and RG III– The Nature Of Leadership

The story of the Endurance led by Captain Ernest Shackleton, is used as a standard case study by American business schools.   Shackleton, leading an expedition to the South Pole, got trapped in pack ice, and watched helplessly as his ship was crushed.  With no other recourse, Shackleton led his men to shelter and safety where they survived an Antarctic winter.  All hands were rescued because Shackleton set forth on a small boat, and braving impossible conditions of arctic cold and brutal seas, managed to find land, manned outposts, and was able to arrange for a mission back to save his men.  Not one man was lost.

How did he do this?  Of course he was brave and resolute. He refused to give in to the harshest conditions on Earth, and led his men over hundreds of miles of frozen wastes to shelter at a point from which he could sail for help.  The Shackleton expedition is studied not as a profile in courage, but as an example of good management.  He was able to shepherd his men to safety over long stretches of impossibly desolate ice and snow thanks to a canny understanding of human psychology, fears, aspirations, and strength.  He cajoled, threatened, and encouraged in equal measure; but he chose his moments.  He knew when to rouse, and when to comfort.

In addition to rallying his crew and giving them the inspiration to keep on despite all odds, Shackleton was also able to foster an esprit de corps – a feeling that they were all in it together; that individual needs, desires, and wants were not only inconsequential, but harmful.  Anyone pulling against the common good was only dooming the entire expedition.

Shackleton knew that selecting the right crew  to man the small dinghy in which he would sail over hundreds of miles of winter arctic ocean would be essential. Every man would have to be fearless, obedient, steadfast, and courageous. He not only had to choose those men who would be the most likely to succeed in manning the boat to its destination; but to select those who would survive in the makeshift camp left behind.  The selection of those men who were to be left to manage the few resources available to them and to keep warm and safe until their eventual rescue was as important as the selection of the dinghy crew. Shackleton had to configure two teams of very different character and disposition, each organized for different ends.  He was successful in both selections.  He was able to reach a far-flung outpost with the resources necessary for rescue; and the men he left behind were alive and well when he returned.

Imagine how difficult this was! He had to select and organize two different crews for two different purposes.  They both had to work together as efficiently and harmoniously as possible to maximize available resources.  Dissension was not an option.  Dispute would lead to death. Not only did Shackleton lead his small dinghy crew over the winter arctic ocean, he led them up and over impossibly high mountains to reach safety and rescue on the other side. He was brilliant.

There was a fascinating program on ESPN the other night (“Inside the NFL”) on which Phil Simms and colleagues discussed quarterbacks Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins. Both quarterbacks were top college draft choices, and each was expected to be the face of their respective franchises.

Andrew Luck has been by far the more successful quarterback.  Although he was the more conservative technical choice – an intelligent pocket passer – many analysts thought that the more athletic, triple-threat offense of RG III would ultimately pay the most dividends.  Regardless of the relative wisdom of that choice, Luck has vindicated his supporters and silenced his critics. Why? Leadership.

During Griffin’s long rehabilitation from invasive knee surgery, he was never off the airwaves.  He sponsored a variety of products which featured his drive, ability, and determination.  He and his agents made the story of his recovery front page news.  Washington DC, thanks to the feeds from Griffin’s PR industry, adopted him as their own – a black, talented quarterback who would be the shining star of a resurgent capital. Griffin could do no wrong. Everyone was anticipating the 2013-2014 season when the Redskins would go to the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, Griffin, like LeBron James before him, pissed off those who mattered most – his teammates.  They resented what they saw as self-centered, egotistic braggadocio.  The man was putting himself out there as the greatest football player ever with not even one complete season behind him.

When Griffin returned to the Redskins this year, he tried to assume the mantel of leadership.  He said the right things, but no one paid attention.  He had filled the airwaves with self-serving hype, had no field excellence to give him substance and credibility.  He had such an inflated vision of himself that he assumed that he would automatically be accepted and revered as locker room leader.  Wrong.  The Redskins team is still leaderless. The coach, Mike Shanahan, bought into this god-image, DC Savior routine and, despite his football instincts, sent Griffin back into the game with a bum knee. After Griffin’s crippling injury Shanahan’s credibility went far south. He is not the team leader any more than Griffin.

Luck, on the other hand, kept his mouth shut his entire rookie season. He never boasted, never crowed; but led his team to a winning season.  This year has been even better, and Luck has performed even beyond the high expectations of last year.

In a recent game when the Colts were being manhandled by an opposing team, the coach decided to take Luck out of the game. Luck, as any competitive athlete, was unhappy. In a miked conversations, Pagano told Luck that he was invaluable, and that he was the future of the franchise.  He was the franchise.  Luck should sit down for the team.  “Yes sir”, Luck said. Pagano showed canny management and leadership. He built up the confidence of his star player at a time when many coaches would have torn it down.

The next game, the Colts were far behind at halftime.  Luck, who had kept quiet for a season-and-a-half, yelled and screamed at his teammates, motivating them to a remarkable second half victory.  Because of the confidence of the coach – as above, a brilliant management decision– and because Luck waited until he had the field credentials to give him authority to speak, everyone listened to him.  The team revived and won the game.

Phil Simms and others on Inside the NFL agreed on two things: 1) leadership is derived from performance; 2) timing is everything.  In other words, Andrew Luck was a canny manager because he knew that only his on-field success would give him the right to speak; and that speaking out had to happen at the right time.

Much is made of teamwork these days.  Office managers organize team-building exercises to promote communication and mutual respect.  Equal participation and collaborative activity is valued even higher than individual leadership.  Yet most offices are led by managers who haven’t the slightest clue about real esprit de corps Shackleton or Andrew Luck style. Myers-Briggs replaces intelligent observation and personal conviction.

Yet, management and leadership are what win championships and lucrative contracts.  All NFL teams have supremely gifted athletes, and yet some consistently win more games than others.  Why? Because coaches and head office staff understand the social dynamics of competitive sports.  That all of these supremely-endowed men need someone to tell them what to do and when.  They all want to be put in the hands of someone who can lead.

Unfortunately Washington made the wrong decision on RG III. In their desire to create a local hero, they did not understand that a triple-threat quarterback is prone to debilitating injury; and that a pocket passer has been the rule for 50 years because the model is a good one.  More importantly, they did not correctly assess the character of their young recruit.  They had no idea that he would become a prima donna, or ascribe to himself the role of Savior and Anointed One before he had accomplished anything.

Griffin may learn his lesson.  He has been battered and bullied by the rest of the NFL and an another sorry, losing season is in the cards for the Redskins, and the front office is finally reconsidering the product they bought.

Whatever happens to Griffin, the point is much larger. Leadership and teamwork are fragile quantities, hard to establish, even harder to keep.  Better to look to Wharton, Harvard, and Stanford business schools than the X and O sideline charts.

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