Football Fumbles, Business Blunders and Naked Leadership

Image of a football player at the Super Bowl

Being a business executive is about leading, competing and winning — which is why sports stories can be valuable reference points for decision making and motivating.

Take, for example, the National Football League’s Super Bowl XLIX, which was lost by a monstrous mistake that provides a wonderful illustration of something that is as simple as it is critical to business success. And that, of course, is the willingness of leaders to listen, not to mention the willingness of staff to speak up when they disagree with the boss.

For those of you who do not follow American football, here is a summary of the mistake in question.

The Situation: With about 20 seconds left in the game, the Seattle Seahawks trailed the New England Patriots 24 to 28 as they contemplated what to do while sitting second and goal on the opposing team’s one-yard line, just 36 inches from being able to boast back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

The Decision: With dynasty creation on the line, Seattle management called a risky slant pass over the middle, rather than handing the ball to fearsome running back Marshawn Lynch, a move commonly considered as a virtually sure thing to get one yard.

The Result: New England intercepted the ball and won the game.

Post-game Assessment: Worst play call in Super Bowl history, maybe even football history. As Sports Illustrated recently noted when looking back at the NFL’s worst players, people, plays and decisions, “The Seahawks passed when they should have run, and because of it, they lost when they should have won. Simplistic, but still so true.”

Decision Background: The play was called on the sidelines by Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll along with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. But other team coaches were aware of the chosen strategy before it was executed on the field by quarterback Russell Wilson and 10 other players.

Blunt Fact: No one challenged the call.

Best Joke: Following the game, the Pope immediately appointed Carroll, who isn’t Catholic, to the highest Vatican tribunal, noting the Church can use anyone who can bring 200 million people to their feet screaming “Jesus Christ.”

History is stacked with mistakes caused by leaders who set courses of action that went unchallenged even when everybody else involved saw them as folly. The phenomenon was raised to a literary art form in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In that fairy tale, the situationally challenged leader ends up strolling through town as naked as the day he was born. Today, corporate leaders regularly appear just as silly thanks to the silence that typically surrounds the proverbial “elephant in the room.”

Acquisitions, divestitures and executive appointments are particularly fertile ground for big blunders caused by the deadly combination of overconfident leadership and staff silence. Why does this happen? Ego, arrogance, pride, stubbornness, lack of self-awareness and ignorance can easily lead leaders to the view that they are smart enough to make major decisions without seeking a critical viewpoint from anyone lower on the org chart. And when this happens, a culture of deference can easily silence staff. Employees, of course, also tend to keep quiet simply because disagreeing with the boss is seen as a career-limiting move. As Voltaire put it in The Age of Louis XIV, “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”

Nobody likes looking bare of wisdom. So here are some leadership tips on how to avoid creating a Seattle Super Bowl-class fiasco:

  1. Ask for feedback before showing your viewpoint because it is a lot easier for staff to be critical of a position the leader has not taken.
  2. Continually ask staff questions because answering a question that invites criticism is easier than initiating criticism.
  3. When staff are speaking, just listen intently and let opinions flow — don’t interrupt, don’t make a quick judgment, don’t compliment — and watch your body language.
  4. Seek out private conversations with staff members not speaking up.
  5. After you come to a decision, explain your thinking and indicate where staff comments influenced the outcome and why some viewpoints did not carry the day.
  6. Make it “our” decision, not “my” decision, whenever possible.

Now, here are some tips to help staff be effectively heard:

  1. Do your homework because nothing makes a leader stop listening faster than half-baked criticism.
  2. Think very hard about how and when you will make your points.
  3. Don’t continually raise problems without offering solutions.
  4. Don’t waste time on what is not material. Instead, heed 19th-century American philosopher William James: “The act of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
  5. Don’t be Chicken Little, because the sky does not fall on every decision.
  6. Summon the courage to speak up when you disagree because (a) it is the right thing to do, and (b) wisely speaking up is often much better received than you might initially think.
  7. When decisions do not go your way, quickly and gracefully get with the program or respectfully leave the program if you can’t.

Super Bowl XLIX was an unmitigated disaster for Seattle. But the Seahawks’ fumble can still serve as an important reminder for executives and staff who have forgotten the child from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who cried, “But he hasn’t anything on!” On the sports field and in the boardroom, everyone should remember that no one is smarter than everyone else and that silence is not golden when it comes to collaborative decision making.

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact