Leadership Fail: Lessons From The Worst Super Bowl Play Ever - InformationWeek

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2/2/2015
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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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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
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2/7/2015 | 12:34:54 AM
Re: Overthinking the clock
@Dave: Actually, I haven't played with that partner in months!  ;)

I was thinking about writing a piece about management lessons from bridge...but really one would be better served by reading Victor Mollo's books.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/5/2015 | 8:14:42 PM
Re: Overthinking the clock
@Joe- And that's why you still have a partnership. A good lesson in leadership form the bridge table. As someone who has never screwed the bidding and has been saddled with partners who always do, I can't relate. :)
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
2/5/2015 | 7:08:08 PM
Re: Overthinking the clock
Good points, Dave.

> at any rate, If the Seahawks were concerned about time at all with 26 seconds and three plays they failed to focus on the proper goal. The goal is moving the ball 1 yard.

Sometimes there's just no accounting for very bad decisions.  It reminds me of when I've made terrible mistakes at the bridge table.  I remember a confused, agitated partner asking me after a flawed auction, "What kind of bid was two diamonds?"  Without hesitation, I exasperatedly replied, "A wrong one."
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2015 | 6:26:14 PM
Re: Leadership: Where the rubber meets the road.....
@Technocrati- When I worked for Sloan Management Review in a previous life, I worked with several management faculty who proudly displayed their belts from their Six Sigma training. I found the whole concept of belts to be hilarious for management. But in the process, it got me into learning about all sorts of various management philosophies. While I think some aspects of Japanese managment don't translate, Kaizen is one I think we should all think about more. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2015 | 5:57:57 PM
Re: Gray area: a football play equals leadership
@Charlie- Well, you can hit a receiver within 5 yard of the line of scrimmage so the defender was fine.

And it isn't really about drawing lessons from a play. It is about how humans handle failure. Handling failure is one of the most important and fundamental parts of being a human being. We need to take lessons in how others handle it.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
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2/3/2015 | 5:53:49 PM
Gray area: a football play equals leadership
Pictures of the play show the Seahawks receiver being knocked out of the position from which he would have caught the ball. If the Patriots defender had collided with him a quarter of a second sooner, wouldn't it have been necessary to call pass interference? Did the defender time it that well or did he just get lucky? And if the play had gone the other way, what lessons would we be drawing from it? Drawing leadership lsssons from one football play is a desperate undertaking. Football is a game and maybe we should leave it at that. As someone who has watched Pete Carroll's teams make a lot of good decisions versus the San Francisco 49ers, I'm not prepared to judge him on the basis of that play. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2015 | 5:49:41 PM
Re: Leadership: Where the rubber meets the road.....
@Technocrati- The only thing I know about Asian leadership is from comic books and movies. Do you still have to offer to kill yourself if you screw up there? :)

No seriously, clearly they don't. One reason why I think Japanese leadership tends to be better is the idea of Kaizen. If you have a philosphy around always improving, you can always admit mistakes.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2015 | 5:49:23 PM
Re: Leadership: Where the rubber meets the road.....
@Technocrati- The only thing I know about Asian leadership is from comic books and movies. Do you still have to offer to kill yourself if you screw up there? :)

No seriously, clearly they don't. One reason why I think Japanese leadership tends to be better is the idea of Kaizen. If you have a philosphy around always improving, you can always admit mistakes.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2015 | 5:13:57 PM
Re: The football side
@TerryB- He was already taking some flack from fellow players. Richard Sherman especially. 

On the football side, I don't really have that much problem passing if he tried something out of the teeth of the defense. But he's looking at a jumbo package with guys stacked up in the mddle. Then he throws the ball into the middle. He threw into the strength of the defense. If he throws outside, he's throwing away from the play call. 

You're right that sports is always about second guessing. But business and sports is about risk-reward analysis. The reward (a Super Bowl) is huge. The risk of the throw is higher than the risk of the run. Given the size of the reward, good business is to look for a lower risk play.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2015 | 5:10:25 PM
Re: Leadership: Where the rubber meets the road.....
@Technocrati- You're welcome. Sadly, I don't see many leaders doing this. Most of the time they expect it of their employees without modeling it in themselves. 
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