Leadership and Football

October 23, 2011

Posted in Leadership.

This is a guest post by Brian Grundy, my brother and an engineer who works at Boeing Corporation on super-cool projects he sometimes can’t tell me anything about. He’s recently started an internal blog at work about leadership. He’s also a big Notre Dame football fan, and today’s post has nothing to do with yesterday’s game (he wrote it prior to the game).

Guest post by Brian Grundy

I am not your average football fan. Sure, I love a good heart-thumping one-handed-catch-in-the- endzone-display-of-raw-athleticism as much as the next guy, but I also enjoy a more cerebral appreciation to the sport. That’s why, with football season back in full force, so too is my rekindled fascination with systems theory concepts such as emergence and the organizational principles of leadership. Let’s begin with emergence. According to Wikipedia:

Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions

Knute Rockne coaching

Within the 60 minutes of an American football game, any one moment of action there are a mind-boggling list of variables that directly affect the outcome of the game. Without going into excruciating detail, consider the simplified idea of a single offensive play. At its heart there are 11 players on offense, each with a specific assignment to try to assist or progress the ball into one end of the playing area. On the other side are 11 players who in general are each trying to out-scheme, out-play, or out-technique just one of the 11 offensive players to stop the progression of the ball. Sounds simple right? From there you just add factors like, wind, rain, crowd noise, emotional states, athletic ability, coaching acumen, the pressure of failure, the blinding desire for success—-okay, you get my point. There is nothing simple about all of this. With so many variables, it would certainly seem that anything could happen on any given play. And while that is to some extent true—there are still very predictable outcomes. Some teams are just better than other teams. Why? Well of course there are too many variables to simplify it—better talent, cohesion, but perhaps above all: leadership—or in football parlance “coaching”.

One of the things that consistently fascinates me about football is how the presence or absence of a great coach can drastically change the performance of a team. In 2002 coach Paul Johnson took over coaching for a Navy Academy football team that had only won 1 game in their last 20. That’s 1 win in two seasons of football. His first year as head coach he modestly doubled that success, by going 2-10. But over the next 8 years he won 8 or more games every year and took his teams to 5 straight bowl games. How did he do it? What makes Paul Johnson and other football coaches great coaches? How can one person have so much influence over a team’s success?

What makes the Paul Johnson example such a good one is that Navy’s institutional mission has nothing to do with winning football games. While other big-time college football schools may be able to go out and recruit bigger, more talented kids—Navy is going to have play the hand it is dealt. Navy’s offensive linemen are over 50 lbs lighter than the average Division I school. Their players’ speed, size, and strength just don’t stack up to the recruited athletes who fill out the rosters of powerhouse programs who dream of playing in the NFL. Navy players—typically—do not go on to play in the NFL. And yet, a simple thing like a coaching change and greatness started to emerge. Somehow, in a relatively short time, all the tiny interactions within the program both on and off the field started to equate to winning football games. Football, and especially college football is littered with stories like Paul Johnson’s where a single coaching change has a dramatic effect on the course of a program. According to Robert Nealy of Football Relativity blog, there are a few measurable qualities that make a great football coach, great. I submit that they are the same qualities that make a leader in almost any organization great. Each of them plays a big part in shaping the emergence of greatness from an organization.

  1. Creates a system. Nothing is more vital to an organization’s success than, well, organization. A coach is responsible for defining that system of expectations, goals and priorities, that each member can work towards. The overall goal of every football team is the same: win games. But the system employed is what gives legs to that ambition. Often times it is a simple matter of efficiency—having a system where everyone knows their part and what they are responsible for allows each contributing member of the organization to focus on doing their job really well.
  2. Selects a Staff. While not all organization leaders have the luxury of handpicking a staff, most still have a decent amount of authority over what roles and responsibilities each member of their team will take on. Knowing the strengths, weaknesses, and objectives of your team members/staff is another vital key to creating an efficient organization. A president/manager/coach is often many levels removed from the work efforts they are leading, but by putting the right people in place, he can rest easy at night knowing that progress is being made.
  3. Delegation. – Once the right people are in place, a true leader must be ready to delegate. Trusting your staff to do the right things, and empowering them to do their jobs not only frees the leader up to be more effective, it provides an atmosphere of passion, creativity and interchange where people’s ideas are not overshadowed by a micromanaging boss. So many times a leader or coach ascends to that position by doing something really well: (calling the plays for example). Still—continuing to do the things that got you into that position are not necessarily the keys to being successful at that position. Leading in and of itself requires a skill-set that is often very different from the rest of the positions on the team.
  4. People Skills/Motivation. – the so called ‘soft-skills’. Without these, your effectiveness drops dramatically. People in any organization are likely to feel tired, confused, concerned, apathetic, fearful, isolated, mis-trusted, or just plain unhappy from time-to-time. The mark of a great leader is to be able to affect people’s moods and make them feel empowered, challenged, and appreciated.
  5. Know your Game. – the rest of the qualities described in the Football Relativity blog about what makes a great coach revolve around things like clock-management, play calling, knowing when to challenge a play.. etc. I think the apt metaphor here is to lead effectively you must really know your business. It should be a constant part of your daily routine, to better understand the ins-and-outs of your core business function. As a team lead, it is very difficult to evaluate a team-member’s work without first knowing what it takes to do that job.

As this football season continues, cheer for your team. But if they are not doing well—you must ask yourself: is the right leadership in place?


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