Four Leadership Lessons from the NFL’s Fumbled Handling of the Referee Lockout
There was never a question of “if” it would happen. The only was question was “when?” Any NFL football fan knew that sooner or later a “replacement” referee would make an incorrect call that decided the outcome of a game. That time was this past Monday night when the Seattle Seahawks came away with an improbable victory over the Green Bay Packers due to the referees not calling a clear penalty on the last play of the game and making an error in judgment in the call they did make.
The way NFL leadership has handled the referee lockout and the use of replacement referees offers several interesting lessons for leaders in any industry or organization.
Talent trumps – The NFL underestimated the gap in skill levels between their regular referees and the replacement referees, most of whom have only worked low-level college games or even just high school games. The replacement referees have had excellent attitudes and a willingness to work hard, learn, and improve. Those are critical traits for any successful employee. However, the simple fact is that they are literally out of their league when it comes to having the skills and knowledge to work in the NFL.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes the importance of “getting the right people on the bus” and then leveraging their strengths to “drive the bus” (your organization) to its destination. Because of the way the NFL managed the lockout, the most qualified college referees were already locked into their conference schedules, so the NFL had to utilize people who weren’t qualified for the job, and as a result, their performance has been sub par. The number one rule for a leader is to hire the right people for the job and the NFL clearly deserves a penalty flag for this violation.
Training is necessary, but it shouldn’t be used to “fix” people – The NFL invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money in training the replacement refs on how to work in the NFL. They conducted rules clinics, refereed pre-season games, and have had weekly conference calls to evaluate their performance and work on improving their weaknesses. People can learn new skills and sharpen their existing abilities, but the purpose of training isn’t to “fix” people. Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller share a wonderful saying in their book The Secret – What Great Leaders Know and Do: “No matter how long the runway, that pig ain’t gonna fly.” Many leaders invest an incredible amount of time and resources into giving flying lessons to people who are never going to fly. Leaders have to be willing to accept the fact that there are some things that certain individuals will never learn to do well.
Your people are your brand – NFL leadership prides itself on managing its brand image. They are fond of talking about their efforts to “protect the shield” (the NFL logo) through efforts such as controlling illegal drug usage, player health and safety, and encouraging upstanding player conduct off the field. Yet they’ve willingly compromised their brand integrity by using under-qualified referees which has put player safety at risk and resulted in a sub-par product on the field. The individuals that operate your organizations and interact with your customers are the living embodiment of your company’s brand image. The focus must always be on serving the customer and delivering on your brand promise.
When people don’t perform, leaders need to look in the mirror – Whenever you have an employee who is failing in their job, you need to examine what you did or didn’t do to contribute to the situation. Referencing back to the previous points, did you hire the right person? Have you provided the correct amount and type of training? Have you clearly established the goals and performance standards and provided the specific direction and support needed? Too often we rely on our ability to make the right hiring choice and then just turn the person loose to do the job. People may have very relevant transferable skills, but there are always new things to learn or new ways of doing familiar tasks that have to be mastered. NFL leadership has no one to blame but themselves for the performance of the replacement referees.
The Monday night debacle ended up being the tipping point that drove the NFL and referees to reach a tentative agreement late last night that will end the lockout. The NFL may have succeeded in exerting their power and proving to the referee’s union who is really in charge, but in the process the league fumbled this leadership opportunity and damaged their brand integrity.
Randy Conley is the Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts appear the last Thursday of every month. For more insights on trust and leadership, visit Randy at his Leading with Trust blog or follow him on Twitter @RandyConley.