Leadership Fail: Lessons From The Worst Super Bowl Play Ever

The biggest coaching mistake in Super Bowl history gives us a lesson in how to handle failure in our own IT organizations.
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After more than a decade of writing about leadership, I posted an article yesterday about the great leaders at the Super Bowl, and one of those leaders is now responsible for the biggest coaching mistake in football history. Now I'm forced to ask the question: What happens when good leaders go bad?

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the man I called a great leader yesterday, is compounding his mistake but not truly owning it, and it may cost him his team’s trust.

For non-football fans, let me sum this up as succinctly as possible. The Seattle Seahawks were behind with two minutes to go in Super Bowl XLIX. Because of a miraculous catch, the Seahawks found themselves with only one yard to go for the game-winning touchdown, and a little over 20 seconds to get there. They have the best running back in the game for making short yardage plays into touchdowns. The man's nickname is "Beast Mode." Instead of handing it to this beast of a man three times, so that on at least one occasion he might fall forward and end up in the end zone, they threw the ball and it was intercepted, allowing the New England Patriots to win.

[ What else can IT learn from Super Bowl XLIX?. Read 3 Cyber Security Lessons From Super Bowl XLIX. ]

To put this into tech leadership terms, it's akin to Tim Cook saying, "Despite great sales, I'm going to discontinue the iPhone and iPad and start selling servers." This was a leader turning away from his greatest strength to instead use a dangerous strategy when the entire game was on the line. Is there a management book out there that has ever said: "At the most important moments, a manager should turn away from his team's greatest strengths"? Again, without trying to fill this with football talk, you must be wondering if there was a good reason. Maybe they were trying to surprise the other team, right?

Well, yes. Clearly, they had a reason. But here are the things that can happen if you run the ball:

  1. You can be tackled before scoring and try again.
  2. You can score a touchdown and put yourself in the lead with about 20 seconds to go in the game.
  3. You can fumble, but the man you are handing the ball to is not known for that.
  4. What happens if you throw? Let’s save that for a second, but clearly the risk is higher.

The No. 1 factor in facing failure is "owning it." Fessing up to the mistake and showing how you are going to fix it has always been the management 101 way of fixing a mistake. It is about rebuilding trust. Is Carroll owning it? Sort of.

Pete Carroll owned the fact that he approved the play. Carroll is quoted by ESPN saying, "I made the decision. I said 'throw the ball.' "

But the excuse that comes after it is bizarre. In media reports, Carroll and his assistants claimed that with 26 seconds on the clock, they wanted to run more time down on the clock so the Patriots couldn’t get the ball back and score. Fine. Though 26 seconds isn't much time, it is enough time for a miracle. But let's get back to what happens if you throw the ball:

  1. You can catch the ball and score a touchdown.
  2. The pass can go uncaught. In that case, the clock stops. Time is frozen. Time is not frozen on a running play.
  3. You lose the ball on an interception.

If you really wanted to run time off the clock, even a six-year-old Pop Warner league football player knows that passing will not do that. There is no situation in which time is taken off the clock there. Earlier in the game, the Seahawks threw a pass that NBC estimated took 1.78 seconds to get from the snap to leaving quarterback Russell Wilson’s hand. The deciding play itself lasted only 6 seconds because, when it was intercepted, the play continued. Had it been caught for a touchdown, the Patriots would have had roughly 23 seconds to score. Had it been dropped, it would have taken 2 to 3 seconds total off the clock. If the goal was to actually take time off the clock, a run play is the only play that makes any sense.

So Carroll owned the mistake, but not the thinking behind it. He was quoted on ESPN saying one of the craziest things you’ll ever hear: "We were going to run the ball in to win the game, but not on that play. I didn't want to waste a run play on their goal-line guys. It was a clear thought, but it didn't work out right."

A clear thought? Really? With the Super Bowl on the line, you were going to purposely call a play that would take 2 to 3 seconds, at most, off the clock. A play that was not intended to score a touchdown, believing you had a 100% chance to score on the next play? This is either an attempt to save face, or a mistake showing he's been getting lucky up to now.

In other words, Carroll isn't owning the mistake because he still hasn't admitted the mistake. He has taken blame, but that's not the same thing. Blame is when you accept responsibility. Owning the mistake is when you know what the mistake was, explain it clearly, and present a plan for fixing it next time.

Granted, it isn't even 24 hours later, but by delaying the inevitable, accepting blame for a decision even a child understands was wrong, Carroll is failing to be the leader I thought he was just yesterday. If we’re going to learn from his successes, we also need to learn from his failures.

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