Like just about everyone else that watched the Super Bowl, I was dumbfounded at the play call that will forever define the game. I watched as the seconds drained from the game clock this past Sunday, kicking off a frenzied celebration by Patriots players and fans, and ushering in a corresponding state of utter dismay and shock from Seahawks constituents. I need not rehash this call; it’s been debated and reviewed ad nauseam.
Instead, I’m going to focus on something central to the overall debate, something that has received barely a mention in the midst of the prolonged fury and outrage: leadership. Seattle coach Pete Carroll has, many would say rightfully, been vilified for calling ‘the play’. While I’m neither a Seattle nor Pete Carroll fan, I will nevertheless give him a pass (no pun intended). In my mind, with this one play call, Carroll demonstrated several leadership traits worth emulating.
If you Google ‘Leadership Qualities’, you’ll get back an endless number of page results containing an array of leadership attributes, all of which crystallize around several key themes. Pete Carroll’s play call was an example, in a microcosm, of six different leadership traits:
Some will argue that the play call was staggeringly stupid; I’ll argue that it showed tremendous courage. All great leaders have an abundance of courage: the fearlessness to push on despite obstacles, make unpopular decisions and to try new things. No great innovation is borne from a lack of courage. There are always plenty of naysayers ready to shoot down every idea.
In the business world, leaders must have the courage to take risks. When Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group, met with a group of so-called experts who advised against joining an already crowded industry, Branson followed his gut instincts, and replied with his infamous slogan saying, “Oh, screw it. Let’s do it.” Courage is what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders.
Pete Carroll, like many other great leaders when faced with making a decision, was decisive. Rather than sit idly, fearful of any number of possible results, great leaders make decisions, and do so quickly. It’s often said that any decision is better than no decision. If the result is unfavorable, or not as intended, then you step back, analyze, prepare and strategize for the next decision. Great leaders are not afraid to be decisive, and Carroll, as the leader of the Seahawks team, was decisive.
Who can remember sitting in a work meeting where a large group of people was discussing an upcoming company initiative? And even though senior management was present, no decisions were made, other than to schedule another meeting. Be decisive and move forward.
3. Taking Ownership and Being Accountable
Immediately after the game, and during a tsunami of questions from incredulous and bewildered media types, Pete Carroll did what all great leaders do: he took ownership and held himself accountable. He stood there, under the white-hot intensity of a catastrophic decision, and accepted full responsibility. He didn’t lay blame at his quarterback’s feet for throwing the interception, or his receiver for failing to make a play on the ball. Pete Carroll was accountable and took ownership of the decision, and did so without reservation.
When Andy Pettite, the former Yankees pitcher, was found to have tested positive for steroids, he took ownership and accepted responsibility. Most people accepted his humility and forgave him. Conversely, when Roger Clemens was faced with similar accusations, he dug in and defended his proclaimed innocence, almost to the point of belligerence. To this day, the allegations still dog him, as does his refusal to take ownership and be accountable.
Great leaders display confidence at all times. Even if, behind closed doors, they shake from fear and uncertainty, they don’t show it in a public forum. While many will argue that Pete Carroll’s confidence was misplaced, bordering on arrogance, I will counter that he had (and probably still has) the utmost confidence in himself and his team to execute. Anyone who’s played sports, at any level, can attest to the surge in self-confidence that comes from seeing the confidence the coach has in you and the plan of attack. Pete Carroll displayed the confidence that great leaders have in themselves, their people and the plan.
I coach youth sports, and often find myself in situations where I’m working hard to build, or maintain a player or team’s confidence. A year or so ago, a baseball team I was coaching was about to face an undefeated team in a tournament. From the get-go, I focused on establishing a positive environment to foster the team’s mental well-being and preparedness. Though the team was overmatched, they fought hard and played with confidence, losing a close game.
A close relative of confidence, optimism relates to your overall view, rather than confidence in a particular skill. Pete Carroll has an unyielding belief in his plan to produce a positive outcome, and that sort of optimism is infectious. Great leaders never back down from believing in a positive result, no matter the odds. Mediocre leaders allow tentacles of negativity to slip through and compromise their optimism.
In 1980, in what is the greatest upset in sports history, the US hockey team beat the heavily favored Russian hockey team to advance to the gold medal game. Coach Herb Brooks had an unwavering optimism about his team’s chances, despite a mountain of pessimism from just about everyone else.
I recently launched my own writing company, after years of toiling at the craft as a hobby of sorts. As expected, I heard plenty of pessimism. There was no shortage of such uplifting feedback as “All companies have writers. What makes you think anyone will hire you?” And that was just from my Mom! I’d like to think that I tapped into a well of optimism to brush off the naysayers and move forward. I believe in myself and hold tightly to a personal mantra in the face of overwhelming doubt: “Be positive. Stay positive.”
In my view, one trait of great leadership stands out among the rest: the ability to inspire. Every great leader has this ability and taps into it regularly, whether to fire up the troops for assaulting a beachhead, pounding the streets and phones to sell more products and services, or give everything they’ve got to win the big game. There is no doubt that Seahawks players rally around, and draw inspiration from Pete Carroll.
As a writer, I draw inspiration from other writers that have mastered the craft. While Stephen King might object to me calling him a leader, he nevertheless inspires me with a quote about writing to which I often refer: “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” Who has inspired you?
I’m not suggesting that we celebrate Pete Carroll for making a decision with such a disastrous outcome. Further, and based on the end result, I don’t expect Seahawks fans to agree with the above perspective. Still, great leadership encompasses many things, and no football team can get to the Super Bowl, and win it, without great leadership. The same principle applies to the business world. Companies with a vacuum of leadership will lack direction, like a rudderless ship, be uninspiring and ultimately fail. Say what you will about the play call and the end result, Pete Carroll demonstrated great leadership, and that is something to which we should all aspire.