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NFL playoffs and Leadership…It Matters

The beauty of sports is it’s crystal clear definition of success. Games and matches are played, points are scored, finish lines crossed, a winner is determined. Moving into the heart of winter, there is no better illustrator than the NFL, the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl. It is without question the most American of sports institutions. The hype, the media, the corporate money, the halftime show, the commercials, the pre-game shows, and even post-game shows. It is an absolute spectacle. Yet it is all about determining a winner. A champion. While coaching and leadership matters in all sports, there is something about football that seems to magnify the impact of leadership.

Tom Coughlin was the head coach who built the Jaguars. He lead an expansion franchise from concept to the most successful expansion team in league history. The Jaguars of the mid to late 90’s were a perennial contender, culminating in two AFC Championship game appearances. They were a standard of what a franchise could be, and at the center of it all was an old fashioned, hard-nosed, detail oriented, disciplinarian. It was a no-nonsense organization, and the results were clearly visible on the field.

As the cliche goes in sports, the window closed. The players aged, injuries took their toll, salary caps and retirements all changed the team. The leadership message grew stale, and Tom Coughlin was fired after 8 years in Jacksonville. The next 15 years would not be fun for the Jaguars.

After a year away from football, Tom Coughlin was hired by the New York Giants in 2004. His demeanor, approach, attention to detail and style were exactly the same. He immediately set the tone for the Giants. “Colonel Coughlin” had arrived and it was all business. The first few years were a rough transition, but the next several seasons saw the Giants earning multiple playoff berths as well as two Super Bowl titles. But with time, the message and leadership style of Tom Coughlin grew stale, and by the end of the 2015 season he “retired” from the Giants. It was a graceful exit, but everyone knew the truth; it was time for all parties to part ways.

Sunday the Jaguars will play in the AFC Championship game. It will be their first since 1999. Tom Couglin will not be coaching, but it is clear his return to Jacksonville last year as an executive leader has set the tone. He changed the morale of the organization. He instilled a sense of pride, professionalism, and winning. The Jags have went from “worst to first”.

While leadership alone will not make a winner, a lack of leadership can certainly ensure failure. The Jaguars are a team and organization of hundreds. But the right leadership has set the tone, and that has made all the difference, at least for this season. Unfortunately, they face the Patriots. Within the confines of the NFL, the Patriots are the gold standard when it comes to leadership, organizational culture, and winning. At the center of the Patriots stands Bill Belichick, who outwardly appears to be the same sort of gruff, “old school”, “my way or the highway” type of leader as Tom Coughlin. However, Belichick has been at the helm for 18 years with the Patriots.

Clearly, leaders set the tone, but those leaders who make lasting change are not tone deaf. Leaders have to evolve, adapt, temper their message, alter their presentation, all while never losing their followers and above all, without sacrificing the core message.

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Addition by Subtraction

Even the most casual observer of the NFL is aware of the Patriots and their blowout of the Jets last night.  After a great deal of hype about “the epic” Monday night match up, the absolute pummeling of the Jets, though impressive, was rather anti-climatic. One thing that was readily apparent is how much better the Patriots have become since they traded away Randy Moss.  It was quite the reminder that sometimes addition by subtraction really does work.

Randy Moss, the future hall of famer and game changing wide receiver, was traded by the Patriots only 4 games into the 2010 season.  No one argues that the man still has loads of talent, skills, and abilities.  What did become very clear was how he was not good for that team.  And in football, as in life and business, Team trumps the individual. No matter what their talent level, their skills, or their production, no one is above the team.  We have been able to watch this lesson play out over the course of this season – the Patriots are thriving and Randy Moss is onto his third team of the year.

It is not the right answer in every scenario, but sometimes addition by subtraction is the right course.  Doing what is best for the team has to be paramount.  If the person with the best sales numbers, the highest rankings, the most visible role, is not bought into the culture and making the team better, it might be time to make a tough choice.  It is a slippery slope, addition by subtraction, but when done for the right reasons, done well, and done with forethought and wisdom, it can be a game changer.

Of course, all of the above said, it sure helps to have one awfully good team already in place, with people ready to pick-up the slack.  Yes, having Tom Brady at quarterback, a host of strong players on the team, and Bill Belichick as head coach does make a difference…just a bit.

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