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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Gridiron Leadership Gap

Under fire for a lackluster season, Washington Redskins head Coach Jim Zorn recently had his play calling duties usurped by owner Dan Snyder.  And though Zorn technically remains the Head Coach and team leader, those duties have transferred, not to a member of his chosen staff, but to an “offensive consultant.”  Coach Zorn’s statements about the change are hardly surprising: “I don’t look at that as a positive.”

The Washington Post’s “On Leadership” panel recently examined this issue through the lens of the following question:

“As the Washington Redskins have learned with Coach Jim Zorn, whose play-calling responsibilities were handed over to an offensive consultant, it’s tricky bringing in someone to help compensate for a particular weakness of a leader without appearing to undermine his leadership. In your experience, are there effective ways to pull that off, or is it a doomed strategy?”

Some savvy leadership minds weighed in on this issue, and the resounding consensus seemed to be that the course the Skins have taken is a “doomed” leadership strategy.  We all seem to agree that:

1)      “Consultants” cannot function as leaders – it is contrary to the nature of their purpose

2)      Coach Zorn has effectively been stripped of his ability to lead effectively.  The mystique and respect of his position have evaporated as he has been publicly branded as inept.

3)      Dan Snyder should have completely restructured the team’s leadership, or worked from within (and privately) to improve it.  Now he is left without a leader going into a daunting 9-game stretch.

My initial response centered on the idea that there can only be one captain of the ship.  In the same way I am skeptical of dual-CEO structures in business, I’m skeptical of a situation in professional football where there is not a central, galvanizing figure.  Not everyone can be Vince Lombardi, but certainly every team needs one go-to problem solver, one go-to decision-maker.  And if that problem-solver, that master strategist, proves unsuccessful, it is in the organization’s best interest to make a clean break.

Football teams are just like corporations – there is a great deal of talent and consequently a large concentration of healthy egos.  In my experience, the best way to channel those talents and direct those egos is through the effective stewardship of a single authentic, values-driven leader.