Fish Rots at the Head

I often explain to people that I was raised by clichê. My dad, Ron, had a saying for every situation in life. Recently, at his 75th birthday party I had the room festooned with banners featuring many tidbits of his wisdom. It was fun to watch all the guests read as they mingled and then share their experiences when Ron had graced them with these little pearls.

The funny thing is most of them are true. And it is amazing how often situations come up in daily life where one of these rubrics is evident.

One "Ronism" that has proven to be true in my life is "fish rots at the head." In other words, if you see an organization or a group of people failing to perform, you need look no further than the leader to identify the problem. Great leaders will, over time, lead organizations that flourish. Conversely, mediocre or poor leaders will invariably lead organizations that flounder (fish pun intended).

As it is fall and I am from Nebraska, I was watching football this weekend. I acknowledge that sports are an overused analogy for business. Granted, there are many profound differences between playing a game and being part of a business. But there are lessons that can be derived. At a very basic level, football and business are similar in that there is a team of hand selected participants executing a plan under the guidance of a boss. Both the team and the business have scoped out the competitive landscape, determined their best plan of attack, and have divvied up assignments among the various members of the team.

And then the game starts. The team either executes as planned or they don’t. The competition either does what you thought they would, or they don’t. Both sides gather data, put their heads together and interpret what is happening, evaluate adjustments to the original plan and continue to refine and execute as the game progresses. This is what coaches and athletes do and this is what businesses do.

And, casting a shadow across the entire process is the leader— the head coach, the executive in charge. And that leader’s countenance has an immense influence on the outcome of the effort.

What I watched this weekend were two forms of leaders; those who owned the outcome and all that led up to the game and the execution of the plan. Those who believed in their management team and their players, who looked at the game as an opportunity and a privilege; contrasted with those who demonstrated frustration, fear, anger pointed at others for failures, and who were woefully insufficient of composure in the face of adversity.

Every young man on the field consistently committed every bit of his talent, ability, determination, training and coaching to successfully executing the plan. Not once did I see a player who gave the impression he was making less than full effort or intentionally attempting to foil the execution of the game plan.

My experience in business is pretty similar. Admittedly, every once in a while you will find a team member who simply doesn’t care or doesn’t really give the necessary effort. And you fire them. They never make it to the field of play in the big games that really matter to the team.

In the vast majority of situations I have teamed with people who worked really hard and gave all they had to try to help their leaders achieve the goals. When the teams I have been part of failed, it was predominantly because I, as their leader, had failed to put forth a good plan and communicate that plan effectively so they knew specifically what they needed to do. Further, and maybe most importantly, I had failed to create an environment where they could bring their talents in full force and have a high probability of success. It was almost always a problem with me, the leader. It was not the players and rarely the plan.

In some of the head coaches I watched this weekend, I saw great leaders. Leaders the players respected, worked very hard for, and ultimately wanted to please. The players played with enthusiasm, confidence, and freedom to push the boundaries of their ability, make mistakes, adjust, and perform. The coaches praised the effort, celebrated the successes, and used the moments of failure as opportunities to teach and strengthen the resolve of the young man. In most cases the team won.

I said to myself, if I had a son I would want him to play for that coach. If that coach ran a business I would want to work for him.

And then there were the coaches who demonstrated little or no leadership. These coaches were showing anger, disappointment, and frustration. They railed on players and assistant coaches for mistakes. They argued and swore at officials. They threw headsets and clip boards. They succeeded only in fostering fear and self consciousness. They completely broke down all communication during the most critical parts of the game.

Consequently, and without exception, their players played tight, their assistant coaches made mistake after mistake in play calling, and everyone on the sideline was head down and eyes straight ahead. They were no longer a team; they were convicted of failure and just awaiting their turn in front of a very hostile judge. In most cases, the team lost.

If I had a son, he would quit the game before he played for one of these coaches.

The same is true in business. Leadership is about creating an environment of success. Leadership is about inspiring people to realize potential they didn’t know or believe they had. Leadership is about creating a path to victory and teaching people how to travel that path. Leadership is about owning the outcome for the team you assembled and the plan you crafted and approved.

Respect of and commitment to the leader can only be earned, it cannot be shouted into existence.

Winning football games or being successful in business is a byproduct of many things, one being great leadership. And without leadership, no matter what is done with all the other variables combined, success cannot be attained. It is the one thing you can’t fake and poor leadership is the one thing you can’t overcome.