It Never Ends. Even More Leadership Lessons from the Washington Redskins November 3 2010

So, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have expected me to have some sort of leadership lessons post on yesterday’s mid-term elections.  I’m waiting to see how the various players respond in the next couple of days before I get to that topic.

Mcnabb-redskins One that I’m very clear on, however, is that the Washington Redskins are still one of the go-to resources for real-life lessons on how not to lead.  You may recall that about this time last year, I wrote a post titled Learning What Not to Do from the Leadership of the Washington Redskins. That post, which mainly focused on team owner Dan Snyder, went a little viral.  It was picked up by a bunch of Redskins fan sites and led to my five minutes of fame in an interview with DC’s Fox TV affiliate.   It’s the only post I’ve ever written that received dozens of comments that all agreed with what I wrote.

I must acknowledge that, at least from my limited perspective, Snyder has changed a lot of the things I criticized last year (not that I’m taking any credit for that). He’s improved the fan experience by adding high def jumbotrons in the end zones (and even took out some seats to do it). He publicly owned up to accountability for the team’s lackluster performance at the end of last year. He fired his lackey and hired a professional general manager. He appears to have removed himself from the day to day management of football operations. You have to give him credit for all of that.  And, of course, he hired a Super Bowl winning coach in Mike Shanahan to lead the team from the sidelines and a five time Pro Bowler in Donovan McNabb to lead the team on the field.

Leading the team on the field unless it’s a closing two minute drill to beat the newly energized Detroit Lions.  Down by five points in the closing minutes last Sunday, Shanahan benched his Pro Bowler and replaced him with second string QB Rex Grossman who was intercepted by Detroit’s scary good defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh who ran the ball back for a game clinching touchdown.

You can argue about the intelligence of Shanahan making the substitution. Rabid sports fans are known to disagree after all.  What doesn’t seem open for much debate, however, is the poor leadership that Shanahan showed in the hours and days after the game.  While he’s put his own unique spin on them, there are three  “leaders don’t do this” lessons from last year’s post that Shanahan is demonstrating this year:

Embarrass Your Key People in Public:  OK, so you recruit a beloved Pro Bowl QB named Donovan McNabb to Washington to lead your team. He immediately becomes part of the fabric of the community.  He’s the face of the team.  He leads the team to some close victories and keeps you close in some losses.  The fans are recommitting to the team.  And, oh by the way, McNabb has run more than a few game-on-the-line two minute drills in his long NFL career.  So what do you do if you’re the coach and you’re trying to beat Detroit in the closing minutes?  Bench McNabb.  Makes perfect sense right?  Only if you want to publicly humiliate him.

Offend and Insult People’s Intelligence:  Based on news reports, McNabb’s teammates couldn’t believe he was benched.  The disbelief extended to just about everyone who follows the Redskins when Shanahan said after the game that the complexities of running the two minute offense was why he had sat his Pro Bowler down for an average at best QB.  Really?  It was the complexity?  Apparently not, because the next day Shanahan said the reason was the cardiovascular challenge of running the drill.  Seriously?  As they say on Monday Night Countdown, “C’mon man!”  It’s one thing to insult the intelligence of your fans (read that as customers).  It’s another to insult the intelligence of your team.  Either way, it shows a leader who’s arrogant enough to think that people are just going to accept whatever he says.

Make Your Organization an Extension of Your Own Ego:  And that second lesson sets us up for a third lesson from last year where Shanahan is plowing new ground. The way he handled the McNabb situation and his long running tooth and nail battle to show defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth who’s boss suggests that Shanahan is making decisions with his ego. The message sent by Shanahan’s actions?  The only one who’s not expendable around here is me. Get with my program or get out.  That’s not how you build an engaged and energized team.

OK, if you’ve read this far you must be both a football fan and a student of leadership.  If you are, you know that the NFL this year is full of both good and awful examples of leadership.  Which ones stand out for you?  The Favre/Moss/Childress drama in Minnesota?  Rex Ryan’s bluster in New York?  The practice makes perfect example of Peyton Manning?  There are so many more to choose from.  What’s your favorite and what’s your leadership lesson?

8 Responses to “It Never Ends. Even More Leadership Lessons from the Washington Redskins”

  1. Lori says:

    I think that the leadership lessons from the Redskins may pale in comparison to those of the Chicago Bears. That is, lessons of what NOT to do in leadership. Recall that the hero of your story (I say this with sarcasm of course), Rex Grossman, was the "go to" quarterback in Chicago for way too many seasons. An interesting aside to your story is that Bear's fans were repeatedly told how great a quarterback Rex Grossman would become (someday…) because of how smart he was. Smart, apparently, but not too talented.

    In any case, while there are many, many "don't do as I do" leadership lessons from the Chicago Bears, the one that is on my mind today is a failure to develop leadership depth on the team. This became painfully apparent a few games ago when the current quarterback, Jay Cutler, went out of a game with a concussion (after being sacked 12 times). The 2nd string quarterback was, well, entirely befudled by the offense and the 3rd string quarterback was no better. Both were clearly not prepared to step into a leadership role for the Chicago Bears. This has also been seen on the defensive side of the ball. When a key team leader goes down, the Bear's defense is inept. Importantly, I think, good leadership is about developing your staff…developing leaders who can lead and who can step up to lead when needed. In the case of the Chicago Bears, they are a great team if you are a Packer's fan. And not to pick only on the Chicago Bears or on football, imagine being a Chicago Cubs fan. There is even an interesting little book out there about what NOT to do like the Chicago Cubs when it comes to leadership: "Cubs Fans' Leadership Secrets" by John Charles Kunich and Richard I. Lester that you can pick up anywhere. Well, at least they are entertaining.

  2. Scott Eblin says:

    Lori – You're in the running for most awesome comment ever. At the risk of being a little crass, your writing is powerful because you clearly demonstrate the two P's – passionate and pissed! Hope the Bears and/or Cubs come through for you at some point. Thanks for taking the time to vent and rant! Cheers – Scott

  3. I'll extend your invite to the college ranks and comment about my beloved Texas Longhorns, who are suffering through a "not our standard" season at 4-4 so far, with three home losses already this season.

    Usually, head coach Mack Brown is the consummate leader and an inspiration on what to do; he makes a point not to call out individuals in public, and I can't say that I've seen his ego in action. Recently, however, I've seen a few instances of cracks in item number two: insulting our intelligence. Mostly this revolves around explanations as to why the team is struggling, which sounds to me and many of my fellow fans that the defense is more culpable for the losses than the offense. Rather than go through all the reasons, let's just say that some of the details he offers don't pass the smell test. Sigh, and we just played for the BCS National Championship last year…

  4. Kent Wrenn says:

    If you want to look to Chicago and/or sports for lessons in leadership, look at the Blackhawks and Rocky Wirtz. I'm not a hockey fan, but his was a textbook case of rebuilding a business, brand and franchise. It all started with his leadership (or his father's lack therof…it helps to start at the bottom!)

  5. timage says:

    I love posts like these that take real life situations (from sports!) and pull out real life lessons.

    I wish I could remember which coach stated, "You have to have a great coach and great players if you're gonna win in this league. You can't just have great players and an okay coach or a great coach and okay players."

    I think this example shows how a coach can go from great to okay if things like pride gets in the way or power goes to one's head.

    With the Redskins having a bye week, this issue is not going to go away anytime soon.

  6. Interesting how the sporting world inspires so much feedback. Thanks for the great post and comments. Too often individuals place individual goals ahead of goals that are best for all concerned. Or they try to convince themselves that something's working when it's not.

    My favorite example this year is the Dallas Cowboys. The only leader they've developed since Troy was there is Jerry Jones. It seems like everyone else is trying to be popular rather than good.

    But I can't complain. My favorite team is who ever is playing them. So this year we're 6 and 1! Wonder what'll happen next?

  7. Scott Eblin says:

    Awesome comments everyone. Thanks so much. And, Mike, congrats on your team going 6 and 1. Must mean you're a fan of the Patriots!

    Cheers –


  8. Tom Schuler says:

    One other observation worth considering. Shanahan had a perfect opportunity to not only recover from his mistake, but to actually gain credibility with his team and frustrated Redskins' fans by doing one simple thing: admitting he made a mistake. I've found over the years that admitting you screwed up has an amazing impact on your team as they get the opportunity to see more of the person inside the persona.

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