This last week I attended the annual professional association conference that I’ve been a part of since 2008.  I look forward to it every year seeing the smiling faces of so many colleagues. One of the keynotes we were lucky enough to hear from this year was award-winning reporter, editor, and producer Dwayne Bray of ESPN.  Over the past 20 years, he has written and produced some of the most important sports stories.  As we listened to stories about Bryant Gumbel and Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, among others…then he began to take questions.

One of the questions asked was about the lack of diversity at the top of the NFL coaching ranks.  Just to be clear, 70% of the players are black, there is one black coach and no black team owners. Just today I caught the story of the football commissioner talking about this exact subject. As I listened, I became curious about the NFL as a business.  As many of you know, I am a huge football fan…enough that my “girl’s” trip this January was going to see the LA Rams play the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium in LA. It was a blast and, of course, this weekend we will all be watching the Superbowl! But as I paused and put on my consultant hat…I asked myself “Within this organization called the National Football League, what do they get right or wrong?” and “How did the two high-performing teams within this organization playing in the Superbowl rise to the top?”

When you begin to really analyze an organization’s goals and strategy, one of the first things you want to look at it is Core Values.  What you want to see are values that really resonate, aren’t stale, and that live in the language of the leaders of the organization.  This is what was posted on the National Football League’s website:

1.    Respect – Everyone matters.  Everyone contributes. We celebrate diverse opinions and perspectives.
2.    Integrity – We do the right thing when no one is looking, and even if it’s unpopular when they are looking.
3.    Responsibility to Team – As a team, we support one another.  We depend on one another. Everything we do has a consequence for someone else.
4.    Resiliency – Everyone matters. Everyone contributes.  We turn losses into lessons.

Overall, if this was an organization that I was consulting with, I would say these seem consistent with what you hear NFL leaders aspire to.  But I would want to understand how they “live” in the organization by looking at policies, talent management practices, community outreach, and their strategy.

Now, just like any organization…sometimes the NFL gets it right and sometimes they get it wrong.  Over time, some of the charges that people have leveled at the NFL is that it favors the owners over the players and fans (ticket prices), that they play favorites with some player and team infractions, they lack making player’s safety a priority, and their stand on player protests, drugs, and domestic violence is not where it should be.  It didn’t feel right to talk about the Superbowl hype without mentioning these issues as well.  These problems are something that many organizations struggle with and try to find a way to overcome.

The most important part of any organization are the teams that operate within it.  This Sunday we will see the top two teams in the NFL organization battle it out on the field.  Those two teams have a couple of great quarterbacks in Joe Burrows for the Bengals and Matthew Stafford for the Rams. As you have probably heard from me before, leaders are about 70% of the impact on the culture of a team.  So, what are some of the traits that got these two leaders to the highest stage?

As I researched these two quarterbacks there were three traits that really set each of them apart.  When we work within companies, we are constantly looking for those people either already in the organization or those looking to be hired that are high potential, high performing individuals.  The three traits I chose to highlight here are more hard-wired in nature vs. those developed over time.  As you read through this, be thinking about what traits you bring to the table in your own roles.

Matthew Stafford is the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. He played college football at Georgia, where he was a first-team All-American, and was selected first overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2009 NFL Draft.  These are the top three strengths he is bringing into the Superbowl:

1.    Focused 
As the Rams begins preparation for this weekend’s game with walk-through practices, Stafford is shutting out the Super Bowl hype, leaving ticket requests to his wife Kelly and the team, and keeping his mind focused solely on the game. “Dive into the football as much as you possibly can,” he said of his approach. “My biggest thing is, don’t look at the calendar. Whatever the day is, go out there and execute as best you can.” This is nothing new for Stafford.  Over the years, he has always stated that his only focus is his family and football.
2.    Humble 
Those who are closest to leaders know what their strengths are.  The Ram’s head coach, Sean McVay recently reflected on Stafford.  “I think one of the unique things about Matthew as you get to know him is, he’s just always being himself.  I heard Dan Orlovsky, ESPN analyst, speak about Matthew. He said he has got a great way about him when he walks into a room.  You know he is THE man, but he can also be one of the guys.  He’s got great confidence, but also a sense of humility that comes with that. He just has a great feel for people and that’s just who he is.” On top of that he and his wife, Kelly, have quietly given away millions of dollars to education, food banks, and social justice causes.
3.    Courageous 
Throughout Stafford’s entire career, he has exhibited courage and competitive spirit through his play on the field while enduring numerous injuries. A Lion’s former trainer to Stafford said “Over the course of my time in sports medicine, he stands out for always maintaining selflessness and a professional approach to game preparation and play on game day.” He isn’t afraid to put himself on the line for the team. He also isn’t afraid to speak up. Running back Cam Akers said Stafford is a great communicator and leader, and it’s not difficult to understand what he’s trying to say or what he’s trying to accomplish as a result. “He’s very clear-cut,” Akers said. “He’ll let you know what he wants you to do, or what you’re doing wrong or what you’re doing right.”  Not to mention the fact that he and his wife, Kelly, mother to his four children, courageously battled her brain tumor diagnosis several years ago.

Joe Burrow is the quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL and was the first player to win the Heisman Trophy, win the National Championship, and go 1st overall. He was chosen by the Bengals as first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.  Here are his top three strengths:

1.    Calm
There is a certain image that Burrow portrays. He’s inherently cool. And by cool, not trendy or aloof. According to everything I read,  he presents as entirely unselfconscious while remaining self-aware. Burrow moves through the world without fear — the Bengals made it this far even though their quarterback was sacked more than any other QB this season. He takes it upon himself to scramble and extend plays. “We never take him for granted,” his coach Zac Taylor said. “But there’s a lot of impressive things he does that maybe aren’t as impressive to us anymore because we’re just used to it, and it’s kind of his standard, his greatness. But again, we need to step back and always take a moment to appreciate what we’ve got there at that quarterback position.

2.    Tough
Toughness is one of Burrow’s best leadership qualities. “I think Joe thinks deep down he’s a linebacker,” said the Bengal’s head coach Zac Taylor. “That’s what he thinks. And that’s kinda how he plays sometimes, and I gotta hold my breath when he plays that way. But that’s just the mentality he has. And he’s the son of a coach. He’s grown up around football, he’s grown up around being tough and then understanding what toughness is, how that can help you as a leader. “You don’t always have to just be the most vocal guy yelling and screaming at everybody. You lead through toughness; you lead through knowing what you’re going to do and accomplishing the task that you’re supposed to accomplish. And Joe does that. He’s our linebacker playing quarterback right now, and the team really responds and feeds off of that.”

3.    Confident 
It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to be confident on the field.  But, Burrow is also confident and strong off the field.  Burrow consistently speaks out against social and racial injustice in America. “How can you hear the pain Black people are going through and dismiss it as nothing,” he tweeted. “How can you hear the pain and respond with anything other than ‘I stand with you.’” He really does have that attitude of feeling confident in himself , taking a stand, and not really caring what others think.  “It never seems like it is forced,” Sam Hubbard, defensive end, said of Burrow’s confidence. “It was always natural, just his leadership and the way he carries himself. So I think from day one, when he walked into the building, people could tell that this was our franchise quarterback.”

In the end, whether you watch the Superbowl this weekend for the football, the commercials, or the half-time show, I ask you to reframe the NFL as a business.  What do you see them doing well or not so well?  How do you stack up in leadership skills (not football skills!) with those high performers on the field?  Is there something you need to tweak or change within your organization or team to be more effective? Someone once said, “In life, as in football, you won’t go far unless you know where the goalposts are”.  Hope you have a wonderful weekend and let’s go Rams!

As I sit here on a Tuesday morning in my home office, I am astounded by how our world has changed in such a short time frame.  Two weeks ago, my family and I were going skiing on Spring Break, we were looking at adding office space, I had just purchased furniture, I was planning a big extended family get-together, and we were hitting all of our numbers in the first couple months of 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down. Markets are volatile, the Olympics are delayed to 2021, there have been runs on supplies, and many of us know people who have tested positive for the virus.  Over the past week I have been in contact with numerous clients, family and friends concerned and bewildered.  We are all worried about our loved ones getting sick, our means to make a living, our healthcare system, and our country.  First, we ask how could this happen? Next, we ask, what kind of response do we need to have as we lead our families, organizations, and communities through this changing environment?  Finally,  we begin to realize how much we have lost already.

In a State of Grief
As psychologists, we are trained in Critical Incident Stress Management.  Over the years it has come in extremely helpful with our corporate clients.  Examples include debriefing traumatic events such as when a bank robbery occurred and tellers were traumatized, when a beloved co-worker died unexpectedly and grief was overwhelming, when a tornado devastated and traumatized numerous teachers and students in it’s wake, and, of course, the horrific aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing.  We rolled up our sleeves and jumped into these situations and saw first-hand how individuals responded when “our people”  were devastated, lost and fearful.  We, as a team, are seeing similar reactions with our current clients, colleagues and friends during this health and economic crisis.   We are seeing grief.  I had never anticipated writing a blog on a subject that is typically reserved for natural disasters and loss, but it seems very relevant this week.

Grief Response
Many of you took Psychology 101 in college and probably remember the 5 stages of grief.  This is absolutely what we are going through as a nation – we are in grief.  Many people are experiencing tremendous loss as a result of this global pandemic: loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of health, loss of jobs and income. For those who are losing loved ones at this time, there is also the loss of the normal rituals of funerals and communities gathering to grieve together. The Kubler-Ross model outlines the five stages:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  Acceptance is where you want to be.  I will say here, dear reader, that the quicker you can move your people to Acceptance and faith moving forward during this crisis, the better off we will be.  As you observe the responses at your team level and even at a national or global level, notice that they seem to break down in this way:

Stage 1: Denial
This stage manifests with statements of disbelief or challenges to given facts.  We all saw comments and reactions on social media and saw people on beaches and bars who were in total denial.  Examples might be:

  • This can’t be happening?  Are you serious?
  • The flu kills more people every year – what an overreaction!
  • It’s business as usual and I’m not buying the hype.

As a Leader:  Ensure you are making decisions based on real projections and facts.  There is all kinds of misinformation out there.  You will have to make quick decisions that will have far-reaching ramifications. Remember to address each of the facts in a way that takes into account the diversity in thinking on your team – keep the big picture at the forefront, be logical, have the culture and people in mind and give next steps or the logistical details.

Stage 2:  Anger
Once someone realizes that the bad news is in fact real, the next response is often anger.  This is when people’s emotions start to ramp up and logic and decision making isn’t at its best.  Examples of this stage would be:

  • This is ridiculous!  So stupid!
  • It’s going to cost us thousands of dollars.
  • Why didn’t anyone get ahead of this?

As a Leader:   Make sure you are self-aware about any anger you are feeling.  You, quite honestly, were probably having a pretty good year so far.  But letting this anger and “what ifs” get the best of you is a trap.  You don’t want to dig into that anger and make  blunders such as limiting information, passive aggressive comments, or “shooting the messenger” when you get bad news. Being as timely and as transparent as possible  in all your communication so that people aren’t having to guess at what is going on is key to moving forward.

Stage 3:  Bargaining
Bargaining is a more constructive stage and a turning point.  When I returned back to the office and realized what we were facing, at this stage, it almost felt like I was moving in slow motion…but then I started to look at the context of the situation.  During this stage, people start to gain some perspective and consider the bigger picture…and some potential trade-offs. They  might sound like this:

  • This is painful, but we can learn from it.
  • A temporary closure is costly now, but will save lives and get us back to normal quicker.
  • I may only get mild symptoms, but if my mom gets this, it could be fatal.

As a Leader:  It can take a few days to get here, but this is where you start to reflect and take a more level-headed approach.  This is when you start to feel a sense of control over the situation and therefore a sense of calm.  While you need to keep abreast of the situation, you definitely need to monitor your media intake at this time so that you can keep focused and not get distracted by how low stocks are and how many people have gotten sick in the last 24-hours.  Stay in the present and don’t get too far ahead of yourself.  Collaborate and get input from your team as to how you can pivot effectively right now.

Stage 4:  Depression
It’s hard not to feel down about the immediate future as you look at your options in a crisis like this.  I can’t tell you how many tears I’ve shed in the past week.  It’s easy to look at postponed events, canceled work, restricted travel and gearing up to be virtual in all interactions and then get overwhelmed pretty quickly.  This stage looks like this:

  • What’s the use, we’re all going to succumb in the current economy.
  • How will I pay my workers?
  • My business can’t survive a prolonged shutdown.

As a Leader:  The important thing is not to wallow or get stuck in that stage.  You do have to have those little breaks…you are human after all.  Allow yourself to feel the sadness and regret, but as soon as you can move to the next stage you will be energized and feel a sense of progress.  Word of warning here – do not skip over this stage with your employees either.  Listen to them and be empathetic.  Also, know that you may revisit this stage over the next few months.  Acknowledge it and move on.

Stage 5:  Acceptance
The sooner you and your team can get to acceptance and then faith you will make it through the better equipped you will be to make decisions and create and implement a solid strategy.  Having the faith to move forward is knowing that at our core we’re more than anything we will ever face, and we can handle whatever life brings us. We always have and we always will. That is the power of the human race.

  • This is what is happening and this is how we are going to respond.
  • We act fast and we act decisively in order to save lives.
  • We know what our core values are and in what direction the business needs to move.

As a Leader:  Faith is what fuels us through times of fear and uncertainty. It is more powerful than any emotion, even fear. When all hell is breaking loose, it gives us the ability to find our center, to help ourselves and others to find answers, to find a higher meaning in the midst of our pain and in spite of our fear. And if you’re a leader, you take that certainty and transfer it into others, because human conviction has a viral effect and will spread. You bring unwavering certainty to chaotic environments through the power of your acceptance and faith in your team and your deliverables.  That steady vision and faith in the outcome will serve you and your organization well.

We Are Resilient and Adaptable
This won’t be the only crisis this world will ever go through, and it won’t be the only crisis any one of us ever goes through, and it certainly won’t be the only crisis that anyone we love ever goes through. People are shaped not by how things go when things are going well; people’s lives are shaped by the most difficult times.  We have a resourcefulness that says no matter what happens in life, who I am is bigger than anything that could ever happen to me or anyone I love. No problem is permanent, and nothing that happens establishes who I am. Take this as a time to reflect on your accomplishments to date, downshift if you need to,  leverage your strengths and re-position yourself for the future.  You will be able to look back at this time in your life and tell stories about how we all leveled up and conquered an invisible threat…together!
Leadership is calling your name…