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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Leadership and the Onside Kick

Here are some more reactions to ‘the play’ in Sunday night’s Super Bowl:

Sean Payton's risky Super Bowl play exemplifies effective decision-making in the presence of ambivalence.

What drives a leader to make the kind of creative, game-changing decision that New Orleans Saints’ coach Sean Payton came up with in the locker room on Sunday night while The Who were cranking out 12 minutes of the same-old, same-old during the Super Bowl half time show?

It's hard to be sure in Payton's case, but, strangely enough, ambivalence may play a key role. As in: The greater a leader's ambivalence toward a strategic situation, the greater the likelihood he or she will respond by taking action in a novel, risky way.

Payton's decision was definitely both novel and risky: When the Saints came back onto the field, they refused to simply kick the ball to the opposition, as has happened at the beginning of every other half in Super Bowl history. Instead, they tried their very best to keep it for themselves. The onside kick trick worked (barely), and New Orleans ended up with the ball. The Saints went on to get a touchdown that eventually led them to their win over the Colts.

The question of why some leaders come up with bold ideas in tough situations and some don't  has been an obsession for many researchers. Nils Plambeck of HEC in France and Klaus Weber of Northwestern studied the attitudes and actions of 104 German CEOs who were confronting a complex strategic issue a few years back—namely, the looming enlargement of the European Union. The researchers found that if a CEO simultaneously viewed the coming event as potentially both positive and negative—and if those simultaneous convictions were intensely held—the leader was more likely to take organisational action in response. Not only that, the action was likely to be of greater scope, novelty, and riskiness.

"A top executive's ambivalence about an issue does not get in the way of reacting," Plambeck and Weber write in a recent issue of Organization Science, nor does it "paralyse organisational action responses." Instead, the leader's view of a situation as both good and bad creates what psychologists call "emotional arousal" and heightened alertness. That's partly because CEOs, like the rest of us, typically are quick to categorise developments as good or bad, black or white. When an issue shapes up as both positive and negative, there's a resulting "sense of unusualness" that stimulates "a more creative and deliberate" search for responses, Plambeck and Weber write.

So was there something about the Saints' situation at half time on Sunday night that seemed both positive and negative? Or was Payton already in a state of "emotional arousal" from simply having taken New Orleans to its first Super Bowl? Either way, his sense of the unusualness of the situation led to very creative search for solutions. That's more than can be said for the remnants of The Who, who found no particular reason to do anything creative despite the unusualness of their playing in front of tens of millions of people.'

Provided by Harvard Business — Where Leaders Get Their Edge


Obtaining the Most from Your Team

The US retailer, Nordstrom, has a simple approach to recuiting talent: recruit the right people and encourage them to do what they were hired to do.

The Hall of Fame baseball manager, Casey Stengel, put the same lesson another way when he was asked, What has made you the best baseball coach in the world? He replied, 'I don't trip my players on their way out of the dugout.'

Countless organisations and leaders create impediments that prevent their employees from delivering on the promise of their value proposition. Don't you fall into this trap!

Great Decisions and Consistent Execution Lead to Great Outcomes

"I wasn't worried. I was terrified."

'So said New Orleans Saints kicker Thomas Morstead about the moments leading up to the onside kick he took to start the second half of last night's Super Bowl game. And if he was terrified, one can only imagine how Saints coach Sean Payton felt. Having called the play, he's the one that had most to lose—professionally speaking—if it didn't go exactly according to plan.

What Payton went through in calling the crucial play is something that anyone in a decision-making role can learn from.

As we know by now, of course, the kick went exactly as Payton and the Saints hoped it would, turning out to be the defining play of the game. At such times, it can seem that it was destined to be so—that no other outcome was possible. 

The reality, however, is that what occurred on the night was merely the coming together of a series of factors—many of which have equivalents beyond the football field.


It's no secret that modern-day football is a game grounded in meticulous preparation. Indeed, the amount of statistical analysis would put many a business to shame, as would the levels of practice required from players—under the watchful eye of a management team committed to excellence—to ensure that their performance levels are as close to optimal as possible.

Self belief

Let's not forget that calling the play was no split second decision for Payton. It came at the second half kickoff, following a break in the action of around 45 minutes—ample time to quail in the face of pressure. While the rest of the country was watching The Who play their greatest hits medley, Sean Payton was wrestling with whether or not to follow the status quo or his own instincts. At stake: his reputation and his team's chances of staging a comeback. Under similar circumstances, maybe 99 percent of coaches would have opted for a safer kick-off—a decision no one could possibly blame you for. The decision not to listen to the voices—whether inner or those of colleagues expressing doubt—advocating for the easy, trusted path was what allowed everything else to follow. While typical stakes in business tend not to be as high—or as visibly deconstructed—being fully committed to your own decisions is the only way to get members of your team to believe in them enough to execute them effectively.


Watching a replay of the events from last night, it's clear that every single member of the Saints team that took the field for the second half knew exactly what their given role at that moment was. How many of us can raise a hand and say that of people in our own organisations—or even of ourselves, at times? Effective communication is the key to letting people know exactly what is expected of them. If they see confusion and indecision, that will be magnified throughout an organisation. If, however, an organisation's goals are communicated clearly and effectively, the chances of them being executed are significantly higher.

Long-term results are everything

Had the onside kick turned out successfully but the Saints gone on to lose, the chances are that it would already have been forgotten; no-one much cares about the single successful decision in a losing campaign. As such, Payton's half-time decision is only important in terms of the wider narrative. While there's no such thing as a Super Bowl for business, the wider narrative at stake for most of us is the ongoing success and health of our companies.

Making one good decision and resting on your laurels isn't going to help anyone.

Making a good decision and following up with consistent execution of everything else that you do well, however—the pattern the Saints followed last night—is the stuff great teams, and companies, are made of.'

This article was written by Phil Stott, who is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.


Why Leadership Complacency Hurts

That crashing sound you hear is not an accident caused by sudden acceleration of your hybrid car; it is the continuing toppling of idols, such as hybrid car companies, off their pedestals. Listen hard, lest you be next.

Toyota, the world's leading auto company, faces a series of product problems causing a $2 billion recall, an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a galling loss of face for a company from face-conscious Japan. This follows its first annual financial loss in 50 years, with profitability regained partly through cost-cutting.

And if these weren't enough reminders about fallen idols for one week, the Super Bowl did not feature the New England Patriots, whose period of NFL dominance snapped this autumn among hints of eroding focus and discipline.

All too often, long periods of continued success are undermined not by the competition but by self-inflicted wounds.

Winners become sinners when confidence turns into complacency and arrogance. They over-estimate their own invincibility and under-value mundane disciplines. Whenever someone feels on top over a long period of time, they are tempted to neglect the very fundamentals that helped them succeed in the first place. They might even start to feel that the rules don't apply to them.

Success means that people or teams or organisations survive long enough to need maintenance, repairs, and reinvestment. Winners undergo natural ageing processes, as people get older, slow down, leave. Facilities, tools, and bags of tricks get older, deteriorate, and run down. Newcomers might get less rigorous training while long-timers forget what they learned. As momentum runs down, people and buildings begin to look run down. Neglect takes on tangible physical manifestations, such as out-of-shape bodies or broken windows. Add to this the pressures in a recession to cut costs and defer expenditures.

Erosion begins by removing a process or discipline. Let's defer those roof repairs for another year... Let's cut out one practice; we already have so many... Let's save time by eliminating the weekly team meeting... The Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster was said to be caused by engineers neglecting small portions of routine safety checks because they had done so before, and nothing had happened. Oops.

Whether you head a company, lead a good cause, or coach your child’s football or hockey team, your job is to root out complacency. Remember to:
  • Keep up the essential disciplines every single day, not skipping a single one.
  • Keep checking everything carefully.
  • Repair, renew, relearn, and reinvest regularly.
  • Don't rejoice in others' misery, because you could be next.
  • Thank anyone who points out flaws. Listen to disgruntled customers or disaffected constituencies.
  • Treat even small setbacks as occasions for redoubled efforts.   
“Winning is great, but sometimes it takes a loss to get you motivated again. It humbles you down to reality," said one high school athlete. That youth speaks truth! Although he might not be old enough to drive a Toyota, he is headed in the right direction.

For more on how winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end, see - Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End 


Does Your Leader Keep You Mentally Engaged When Times Are Tough?

An interesting thought -

Is Sean Payton America's Best CEO?

What impressed most about the New Orleans coach was how he kept his underdogs and Super Bowl rookies mentally engaged even after they'd immediately fallen behind the favourites, 10-0. That is the hardest task of any coach or CEO. As you take the measure of CEOs and political leaders, ask yourself: How many stack up to Sean Payton? Answer: Very few!


Being a Champion

A great champion is not just a person who is good at sport. You do not become a champion because you have a great drive or a great forehand; these are just part of the package. You need discipline. You need a strong sense of self, combined with a special sort of humility. You need the taste for work. You need self-criticism, you need a self-belief that defies logic and reality. Being a champion involves the whole person.