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Sunday Quarterbacks and Sunday Players

(revised from a previous version published on LinkedIn)

Teams play to win. Some analysts state that the typical football team scores on about one-third of its offensive possessions, resulting in either a touchdown or a field goal. This means that the quarterback is under severe pressure to perform – and get it done each time. His job is to execute with precision and to encourage the players on his team to do the same. Either of those roles is difficult….the quarterback has both.

Wide-receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr. can be a thing of beauty to watch on the field (when he's not punching the competition in the rear). But, on those Sundays when Odell can’t hold onto the football with those velvet hands for what could have been a game-clinching touchdown, he lets the quarterback down.

Mistakes happen. Most leaders know and accept that. But, yes, their desire is to lead teams that win. In order for winning to happen, team players need to trust the leader to make tough calls, execute and be all-in as it relates to their own execution. In football, the offensive linemen have to be big, and they have to be strong. I often try to guess at the size of their jerseys, and wonder if the buckets of ice which they soak in afterwards are custom-made - but I digress. They have to be able to give the quarterback the time he needs to pass, if that’s the play.

In business, this holds true as well.

The multitude of issues requiring leadership attention in any given week can range from product recalls to sexual harassment. It is vital for team players to do their part in anticipating, assessing and addressing issues in their purview, whenever possible. This enables leaders to remain focused on their role of shouldering the other responsibilities for the team. Team players are, in essence, the offensive linemen (and women!) who work to give their leaders time and space to make the big passes before the pressure hits. They must also block for other team players who need to advance the ball. How do they do this? By subject mastery in their own roles, and performing those roles with the highest degrees of precision and excellence.

When Eli Manning (cuz I’m in NY) threw a pass to his wide-receiver, he set a high performance bar – for himself and for his players. He expected to throw with extreme accuracy, and he also expected the wide-receiver to exhibit speed, athleticism, and good hands. His wide-receiver needed to be durable to take a lot of pounding.

Our expectations as business leaders aren’t very different. There are projects, initiatives and entire programs that need to be delegated to team members. As a leader, once I set clear enough expectations and have the game-day playbook drawn, I must trust my team to read the plays, understand the environment, and make small and large decisions every step of the way. They too must be durable to withstand the challenges of cultural transformation, and strategic initiatives sometimes met with resistance. If I’m leading effectively, my job is to set them up to win, then step back as they advance the ball.

Team players must always be looking for ways to help the team win – particularly during major change which requires the best of everyone (aka game-day when it counts). In business, this may mean that team players have a vantage point that the leader doesn’t have and will spot the ‘pebbles’ in the system which threaten to gum up the machinery. The pebbles may show themselves as confusing processes that waste time and goodwill or behavioral issues among the team which must be dealt with. Whatever the pebble, it’s a team players’ obligation to find to ways to remove it, or call it out, at minimum. Failing to do this is costly to the team and to the mission.

Leadership is hard, and so is being a team player. It means living in the grey zone with great regularity and discomfort. Strategies are formed, goals articulated, metrics applied – and it’s the entire team who must execute in perfect rhythm once decisions are made.

I’ll end with my final football analogy, since I’m on a roll and have truly started to enjoy the game after years of retreating to another room with Frito Lays corn chips.

When the quarterback draws up the play in football, there should be no resistance nor argument, even if they don’t agree that the Patriots can beat the Giants through a 54-yard field goal with a second left for a 27-26 victory. (We're always in trouble when we see that little Tom Brady smile.)

The quarterback is the one with the arm. He’s the brainchild of the operation, besides the coach. He has memorized the playbook. He is the facilitator, the leader – the success of the play is largely dependent on him. He can’t wilt under pressure. He must expect to get hit and still get the pass off, exhibiting agility as he runs from the charging tackles and three-hundred pound linemen.

Sometimes the play works, and, at other times, it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, there is no one who is more susceptible to the Monday morning quarterbacking than the quarterback himself. I’m certain that the great ones, in particular, play at their best when everything is on the line and things seem impossible. Losing is especially brutal at those times.

What these leaders need, as do their counterparts in business – is support. They need ready and willing team players able to get it done even when they don’t understand the play or believe for a moment that it’s the right one. They need to trust the leader to make the call, execute and, if necessary – change the play at the line of scrimmage if he sees something that others can’t see. And, they need to rally with the team if it turns out that the play was either wrong, or executed badly.

I encourage leaders to quarterback on Sunday when it counts. Give it your all and then dig even deeper when the stakes are higher. I also encourage team players to play hard on Sunday when it counts.

And for heaven’s sake – everyone should avoid the temptation to Monday morning quarterback. We can save Mondays for the closed-door debriefs (and Tom Brady bashing).

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