Letting Go to Win

Posted by jlubans on February 12, 2021

Caption Tom Brady, Quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. WSJ e-portrait 2021.

You’ll have to indulge me one more time.
I’m going to use sports again to trigger some deep thinking about leadership.
Last week in America we had the 55th (or pretentiously in Roman numerals, LV!) Super Bowl for the National Football League. It’s a long road to the NFL championship game with multiple hazards. While the games are played weekly over several months in all kinds of weather, this year the virus took its unique toll of games and players.
At the end of the season in January, two teams were standing: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. the Kansas City Chiefs*.
The game featured Tom Brady, new to Tampa, but who had won several Super Bowls with another team.
On the Chiefs’ side was young Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback (play caller) and the leader of last year’s Super Bowl winner.
Sports writers made much of Tom’s 43 years, either insinuating that he was over-the-hill or that he was some sort of super being.
Regardless of age, both these quarterbacks are exceptional athletes.
But, of most interest to me was how some writers – it must be part of the job description - tried to stir up controversy about why Tom “abandoned” his old team of 20 years for the new one at Tampa. (One writer consulted a panel of marriage counselors for coping tips for the forsaken.)
I’ll ignore most of those stories since they are largely gossip and stick with actual quotes made by coaches and players.
Did Brady’s former team have a more formal organizational culture? Rob Gronkowski (who played with Tom on the former team and came out of retirement to play with him at Tampa) said:
“Around the locker room (Tom’s) been crackin’ a little bit more jokes than usual, which is cool to see.” Gronk, as he is known to fans, went on to say that the biggest difference between his playing under head coach Bruce Arians (new team) and Bill Belichick (old team) is now he has “the freedom of just being himself.”
So, maybe Gronk offers some insights into two different team cultures: one a bit looser, perhaps more trusting of players than the other. Maybe Tampa is more Theory Y than Theory X?
Incidentally, one writer makes a case for Tampa’s commitment to diversity; at least the outcome is diverse. There’s not a quota system - the Tampa assistant coaches are all considered to be among the best in the business – but since pro football is pretty much of a good old boys’ club, Tampa’s hiring the best people regardless of gender, race or ethnicity is somewhat iconoclastic.
Tampa’s coach, Bruce Arians, explains why he sees “diversity” – as defined by him – as helpful to winning: “… to hear voices in a staff meeting that are not the same, don’t look alike, but they all have input, you get better output. For the players, the same thing. Not hearing the same thing over and over, to hear from different people, from different ages, from 27 to 82 and every kind of ethnic group there is, and male and female. I know our players learn from that, I know I do, and so does our staff.”
Arians would be the first to assure you that he did not go looking for race or gender, it just worked out that the best came from several directions and he was not afraid to hire people who might be passed over by a more traditional team.
“Bruce Arians Says He Lets Tom Brady Do Something The Patriots Didn’t” – that was the click-bait headline.
The story seeks to explain why a top player like Brady would leave a team with whom he’s played and won for 20 years for another team, an entirely new challenge. How big a challenge? Tampa had not made the postseason game since 2007–08.
There’s a clue in a quote from the Tampa coach about Brady’s leadership: “(He) has been (the leader) all year. (He’s) got the air of confidence that permeates through our team every day. I allow him to be himself. Like, (the former team) didn’t allow him to coach. I allow him to coach. I just sit back sometimes and watch.”
Here you’ve got a boss unafraid to let someone else lead.
The boss is able to let go for the good of the organization. He knows he does not have a monopoly on the best ideas; it’s a function of good leaders to let others lead when those others have the greater ability specific to a task at hand.
Arians marvels at how Brady handles younger players. “He’s another coach. He really is. I mean, the athletic stuff (he does) is shocking for a guy 43, but the way he handles young guys and old guys, he’s coaching non-stop.”
“It always pisses me off. I’ll say something to a player, and they’ll look at me, and (then Brady) says it, and they go, ‘Okay Tom, I’ll do it.'”
It’s rare for a boss to say this so honestly. Remember, in most organizations there’s always some smart-ass to ask, “Well then why do we need all these coaches? Tom can do it!”
Given Arians’ deliberate hands-off style, I doubt the “It really pisses me off” comment is aimed at Tom. More likely he is referring to his own frustration with the player who ignores him and listens to Tom.
He’d like to know why that happens. Wouldn’t you?
In the meantime, he chalks it up to an age difference; he’s 68. Tom’s 43. The player’s 22.
Or, that Tom and the 22-year-old are both players and that Tom may indeed have a unique insight into what the younger player is experiencing.
Unlike Arians, I know a few bosses who would be more that “pissed off”; they’d undermine the star subordinate.
Early on I gave my star followers (who shared a similar mind-set and work ethic to mine) free reign over their areas of responsibility. I was criticized by some for doing that - even though we were setting productivity records: I was not doing my job or that somehow my “letting go” imperiled the enterprise.
If my departments were not producing, I’d listen to the criticism.
But, since we were doing more and better, I knew that was only jealousy.
Of course, the risk is that others in the organization see “letting go” as a personal threat to their - often feckless - way of leading. Under a change in circumstances – for example, a new traditionalist CEO - those “clingers” to a top-down hierarchy will not forget and do their all to send you out the door.
Better to leave before that happens.
*In case you a
re interested and were not one of the 100,000,000 to see the game, Final score for Super Bowl LV: 31 Tampa, 9 Kansas City.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

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