Champions Don’t Take Shortcuts

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nfl_lombardi_01The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.
Vince Lombardi

I’ve been an athlete my entire life. From Little League, soccer, and football growing up in Texas to intramurals of all sorts in college and the military, athletic competition is a big part of my life. Sports are a great metaphor for life and I’ve gleaned countless leadership lessons from it. In fact, it’s one of the reasons the military uses athletic competition as a training opportunity from entry level (Basic Military Training) to senior executive level (e.g. Air War College). It was the quotable General Douglas MacArthur who shrewdly observed, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

A lesson every successful athlete learns quickly is champions don’t take shortcuts. Sure, an athlete can take performance enhancing drugs or try quick fixes, but those short term wins are usually overshadowed by long term defeats. The true champion, the one who everyone aspires to emulate and sports magazines profile, is the one who did the hard work even when it would’ve been easy not to do it. It’s the one rising before dawn to work out before starting a full day at work or school, then repeating it day after day until they reach their goal. In Texas, many championship high school football programs start their first practice at midnight on the first day the league allows teams to work out. Those coaches know the players who start out with a “do the work” mentality develop into teams who’ll give their all when the time comes.

In short, champions earn their titles long before the title contest in November. They earned their championship at midnight in August under stadium lights.

The same is true in the military. We “sweat in peacetime” so our skills are second nature to us and we can respond quickly under stress. The drills are sometimes fun, but training can be boring if one has to repeat similar tasks over and over. However, everyone is grateful to their trainers for being demanding and requiring them to learn procedures by heart when the stress level is high, because being well trained makes a person confident. To paraphrase the old military maxim: No one rises to the occasion in stressful situations, they sink to the level of their training. That sense of confidence usually carries into high performance.

In the busy and highly competitive world we live in, it’s very tempting for leaders to cut corners to save time or money. I’m here to encourage leaders to resist the urge. Speed in business is essential, but your team is unlikely to have the ability to hit the mark if leaders don’t train, resource, and lead them. Spend the time ensuring your team has the skills they need to get the job you’ve assigned them done. Believe me, time spent in the training room doing quality training will pay off enormously when there’s a crisis or short deadline. A team that’s raised on shortcuts, however, will dissolve into chaos when the pressure is on. In a high-pressure job I had at the Pentagon once, we had a saying: “Speed kills.” It was our way of reminding ourselves to be precise, but taking shortcuts would lead to mistakes we couldn’t afford to make.

Just like Airmen honing their skills or athletes doing conditioning, well-led teams put in the work required to get the job done when the pressure is low. They do that because they know that when they do the preparatory work and training when they need to, they won’t have to try to rely on shortcuts later. Rather, they’ll perform at the same high level they did in practice.

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Move the Chains

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wpid-ap-first-down-line-football-4_3.jpgThe phrase “Hail Mary” to describe a desperate long pass down the field entered the NFL lexicon after a Dallas Cowboys vs Minnesota Vikings playoff game in 1975 when Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach connected with receiver Drew Pearson in what turned out to be the game-winning play.

Despite the glamour of the Steve Sabol narrated NFL films, few games are won with last second heroics. In fact, most NFL games are won with solid defense and relentless offense. In order to score, you have to “move the chains” (make first downs). Put more simply, games are won when you score more points and gain more yards than the other team, and that’s only done when you make first downs and “move the chains.”  “Move the chains” is football lingo for playing for the next first down, advancing down the field purposefully and continuously until you cross the goal. It’s a way of thinking about the game that’s directly transferable to organizational change because it speaks to continuous disciplined progress rather than just sprinting for the finish and hoping for a miracle.

When a team marches steadily down the field each time they have the ball, they demonstrate discipline and gain confidence. That discipline and confidence is what wins ball games, and it’s the same discipline and confidence needed to make organizational change successful. Like football, moving an organization through change seldom comes from “Hail Mary” plays.  Interim goals and steady progress are the keys to success. Just like moving ten yards to the next first down sets up the offense for the next ten yards, so do interim goals plot the way toward the ultimate goal. Furthermore, in NFL the head coach has to have a game plan and then train the players to execute it consistently. So it is with organizational change: the leader has to have a plan and a disciplined team with the ability to execute it.  No plan or an undisciplined team is a recipe for disaster.  Furthermore, a leader who can’t communicate the vision and the plan to get there is headed for a fall no matter how good is his team.

Organizational change, especially revolutionary change, is hard on the people in the organization if all leaders are doing is flinging the ball down the field and hoping for a miracle. Even Peter Drucker thought so. People will very quickly surmise the leader doesn’t have a way ahead, which will in turn manifest itself in workplace discord, a drop in productivity, and eventually a hemorrhage of talent. For the visionary leader, it’s very tempting to want to move an organization quickly: “revolutionary change” versus “evolutionary change,”  but organizations and people are rarely that nimble without a lot of practice. In the NFL coaches will sometimes rely on trick plays, all out defensive blitzes, and long passes when they’re out of ideas. Those coaches don’t usually last very long. People can become disillusioned with their leaders quickly when faced with too many “Hail Mary’s” and not enough “first downs.” This is not to say teams can’t “do” revolutionary change…but like the ’75 Cowboys people can’t make the big plays unless they can make the small ones.

On the other hand, if leaders are focused on the next first down while continuing to point the way down the field…that is the interim goals pointed at the final goal…then the team will continue to work together to get into the end zone. Revolutionary change is possible so long as leaders prepare their teams with solid leadership and clear cut interim goals, and most importantly, a clear destination everyone can buy into. Achieving interim goals on the way to the end zone gives the team confidence. Repeated and consistent “first downs” reinforce discipline in the team, discipline the team will need to score again and again.

The confidence gained by high performance then directly contributes to a team agile enough to make those “Hail Mary’s” when they have to take the long shot. They will develop confidence in themselves and their leaders.

They will become a championship team.

Want to Win? Find the Right Team Captain

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Team Captain: the very words conjure up a picture in our minds of a leader.  In most sports, the Team Captain is voted on by the entire team.  The Captains are usually the most popular players because they are the most skilled, or the most inspirational, or perhaps the most humble or virtuous.  In some cases, all three apply.

Denver Bronco's Quarterback and Team Captain Peyton Manning
Denver Bronco’s Quarterback and Team Captain Peyton Manning (NFL Photo)

Sports teams, like all teams on and off the field, want to be led by people that they respect.  The corollary is also true: high performing teams are led by great leaders who have the respect of those they lead.

Since it’s the beginning of the Playoffs in the NFL, this article on about how teams appoint Captains is instructive about how people want to look up to their leaders:

“The ‘C’ is just recognition,” said [Denver Broncos’ Champ] Bailey, who was a team captain long before the league started recognizing the role with a patch. “But a true captain appoints himself. If you do your job for a long time, somebody is going to vote you a captain at some point. That’s a great honor, but we all have a job to do.”

The article quotes several past and current NFL team captains, but to me the most telling quote came from  Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason:

“I had a person tell me that Bill Belichick will go down as one of the best coaches ever. But why wasn’t he such a guru in Cleveland?” Beason said. “Vince Lombardi. Don Shula. They won a lot of games, and they won Super Bowls. Vince Lombardi has 20-something Hall of Famers. Shula had great players. Coaches know it’s a game about players.  “If you want to win a Super Bowl, you have to have great leaders.”