By Chad Bandy, MBA
There are many life-lessons we can learn from competition and sports every day. A recent NFL game provided a wonderful example of how a leader can brand their leadership style, with one decision.
There were five seconds left in a heated NFL contest between the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Giants led 41-34 and the Buccaneers knew the game was nearly over. It was an intense, hard-fought game, like all NFL matches are.
Before we go further, let’s provide a little background on the coaches for the readers who do not watch football. This article is about the decision of the leaders, and not the outcome of the game. It’s important to know the leaders involved here, which is this case, is the coaches.
The Giants are coached by Tom Coughlin, who is a meticulous two-time Super Bowl winner. Coach Coughlin is a no frills, get-down-to-business type of coach. He has had great success as the coach of the Giants, but he has often been criticized for his inflexibility as a leader as he has strict routines and “runs a tight ship.” His players and coaches say there is no gray area with Coach Coughlin. As an example, he fined his star defensive end, Michael Strahan, $500 for arriving at an 8:30 am meeting at 8:27 am. Coach Coughlin does not play around.
Coach Greg Schiano is a rookie coach of the Buccaneers. He has taken over a team that is greatly in need of leadership to get the franchise back on the winning track. The glory years when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002 are long gone. Coach Schiano coached the Rutgers Scarlet Knights for past ten years and earned a record of 68-67. He brought Rutgers football back from despair and made it a respectable program. Coach Schiano has many years of college and NFL coaching experience, notably with schools like Penn State and University of Miami, as well as a two year stint as an assistant with the Chicago Bears. He knows his way around football and he has been successful with his results on the field.
Now, let’s get back to the game. The Giants line up with five seconds left, in a “victory formation.” This means they will hike the ball to Eli Manning who will immediately “take a knee.” The “victory formation” is quite noticeable and makes it apparent that the team with the ball will run out the clock. In this case, the game will be over and the Giants will be victorious. The Buccaneers line up in their typical defense formation ready to “fire off the ball.” Meaning, they were ready for a normal play. Here is where the “key leadership moment” occurs. Tradition in the NFL typically allows the team in “victory formation” to “take a knee” with no issue and the game is over. Not this time. Coach Schiano instructed his defense to “shoot” through the line and attempt to knock the ball loose. The ball was hiked to Eli Manning, and he immediately went to “take a knee” to indicate the play is over. It’s a pretty simple play. Wait, no so fast. Eli Manning was unexpectedly knocked back from his kneel onto his back and several of the linemen for the Giants were surprisingly knocked to the ground as the Buccaneers came crashing through the line attempting to cause a fumble. As you might guess, a scuffle ensued as the Giants were not too happy with the “dirty play” by the Buccaneers. Wait, was it a “dirty play?”
After the game, instead of shaking hands, Tom Coughlin had some harsh words for Greg Schiano on the field. Let’s just say the much of the “discussion” was bleeped out. Coughlin was not pleased with the “dirty play.” He went further after the game in the press conference and said the following:
“I don’t think you do that in this league. You don’t jeopardize the offensive line and quarterback. Thank goodness we didn’t get anyone hurt.”
Coach Schiano had a different take during the press conference and stated the following:
“I don’t know if that is something that is not done in the National Football League. We fight until the game is over. There was nothing dirty or illegal about it. We are not going to quit. We play clean hard football until the play is over.”
“Some people are upset about it but that’s the way it goes.”
So here in lies the question. If something is not “illegal” or “against the rules,” should we still encourage our teams to do it? Does coming close to “the line” or breaking the rules send a message to our team? As a point of note, what the Buccaneers did was not against the rules or illegal and no action was taken by the NFL. I make no judgment as to whether the Buccaneers executed a dirty play. Consequently, it did not work and they lost the game. The question is what does this do to Coach Schiano’s brand as a leader and coach? Even though Coach Schiano did not break a rule, did he make the right judgment?
As leaders, we are challenged and tested daily with decisions. Those decisions impact the employees we serve or the customers we are trying to keep. I contend that even though a leader might not be technically “break a rule,” or the law for that matter, the decisions we make brand us as leaders, whether we want them to or not. Coach Schiano will always be known as the coach that told his players to blast through the line to knock the ball loose. No matter how many great decisions he makes or how many “right choices” he decides going forward, he will be forever known by that decision. Our employees are watching us every step of the way, sometimes testing us to see how we will react. They want to know if we are going to “do the right thing” even though it might not break a policy or a rule. I believe that key decision moments can greatly influence the devotion employees have for their leaders, or create mistrust and uncertainty. When the “going gets tough,” what’s the boss going to do? Will he/she make the right call, even though it may jeopardize an organization, or will they “skirt the rules” and make a questionable decision?
I’ll let you be the judge.