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

Posted 11.03.2010

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?