Three Lessons about Leadership from the Seattle Seahawks Locker Room
In the June 12th issue of ESPN The Magazine, Seth Wickersham published an outstanding story about four-time Pro Bowl defensive back Richard Sherman and his struggles to move past the Seahawks’ inability to close out a win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, the most-watched television program in American history.
As a quick reminder – the teams played to a tie (14-14) in the first half, before Seattle scored ten unanswered points in the third quarter. In the fourth, the Patriots replied with two touchdowns of their own, to take a 28-24 lead, with approximately two minutes remaining in the game. Seattle drove the ball to New England’s one-yard line, and with 26 seconds left on the clock, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll elected to try a pass play, rather than handing the ball to running back Marshawn Lynch. Quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass was subsequently intercepted by Patriots rookie Malcolm Butler, preserving the victory for the Patriots. The decision to pass, rather than run, was pilloried in the media, by journalists and analysts alike, but Carroll defended his decision to pass, saying ‘we don’t ever call a play thinking we might throw an interception.’
Wickersham’s article is more than just a fascinating look at the psyche of an incredibly talented, mercurial cornerback, however – it provides an instructive case study that highlights four key leadership lessons that often go ignored:
Lesson Number One:
Tribalism is dangerous, poisonous, and insidious…and it can sneak up on even great leaders. Whatever you think about Pete Carroll’s techniques, views, or track record, it’s hard to dispute that his players have liked playing for him. In 2014, he was voted by NFL players as the coach they would most like to play for, nearly doubling the total of votes received by the second-most-favored coach. However, as well-liked as Carroll is, and as much as he is perceived as having his finger on the pulse of his team, Wickersham’s story makes it very clear that a tangible schism had emerged between the offense and defense within the Seahawks’ locker room. Sherman’s trademark intensity – which, like it or not, has contributed to his excellence as a player – bubbled over and transformed a cohesive unit which had dominated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII into a team that barely escaped against the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the 2015 NFL playoffs, only winning when the Vikings missed a chip-shot field goal with 26 seconds remaining. The tribalism that emerged in the locker room, creating an ‘us versus them’ dynamic in which ‘us’ didn’t include everyone on the team, and the ‘them’ didn’t dress in a different locker room, lurks beneath the surface of nearly every team – regardless of industry. Successful, effective leaders recognize the danger of this tribalism and work tirelessly to ensure that fractures in team dynamics are healed quickly, before they can become opportunities for long-term schisms to form.
Lesson Number Two:
External factors have internal consequences. In the article, Wickersham references a 2014 Bleacher Report story that claimed that some black teammates didn’t think Wilson was ‘black enough.’ Simultaneously, Sherman’s outspoken and heartfelt comments on the subjects of community service, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the pregame national anthem show a tremendous cognizance and emphasis on issues of race, social justice, and activism. Regardless of whether a leader agrees or disagrees with the perspectives and opinions of members of his or her team, it’s important to understand that those perspectives and opinions shape that individual’s actions. Is Sherman’s perceived resentment of Wilson exclusively racially motivated? It hardly seems possible. Is there a possibility that the way the two men feel about issues other than football may impact the way they perceive one another on the field? It hardly seems possible for it not to have an impact. It’s essential that leaders recognize and understand that while they don’t need to agree with the perspectives of everyone on their team, to ignore the circumstances, beliefs, and experiences that have shaped those perspectives is to ensure that they will not remain external factors, but rather, that they will influence internal dynamics.
Lesson Number Three:
Positivity is important, but rationality is more important. A walk through an airport bookstore will yield a dozen ‘how-to’ missives about the importance of a positive mental outlook or the need to keep your team focused on success. Clearly, nobody wants to follow a leader whose attitude evokes a sense of dread, or a feeling that something won’t work. However, this needs to be tempered with a dose of reality. Wickersham talks about Carroll’s renowned emphasis on positivity, even referring to it as ‘border[ing] on New Agey.’ He cites an example of Carroll being able to flush the anger and frustration from himself with a simple inhale-exhale, and following it up with ‘okay, let’s have a nice conversation.’ There’s something to be said for this attitude, to be sure. However, Wickersham also cites Carroll’s praise of guard Germain Ifedi after a 6-6 tie game in which the offense had managed only five first downs, as creating a feeling among Seahawks defenders of Carroll being ‘too positive.’ He goes on to explain that Sherman dismissed Carroll’s effort to rally the team before the playoff win over the Vikings as a ‘routine ‘kumbaya’ meeting.’ Ultimately, what these examples show is the importance of authenticity from leaders. Leaders who are inauthentic – either by yelling when it’s not in their nature or who are positive to the point of being Pollyannaish, lose their teams’ respect and support. Leaders who are authentic can inspire greatness from their teams, getting people to go far beyond what they thought were their limitations, and generating incredible results.
Clearly, an experience as significant as the loss of a Super Bowl, especially from the one-yard-line, with only 26 seconds remaining in the game, generates a plethora of storylines, each with its own opportunity for lessons and takeaways. The Seahawks, for all the drama that has beset the team since the loss, haven’t imploded – they’ve gone 20-11-1 since, going to the Divisional round of the playoffs in each of the following two seasons. However, during the offseason between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, trade speculation about Sherman was a major NFL storyline, demonstrating that the inability to heal the wounds of the Super Bowl loss, to close ranks and authentically align the team as one unified group, and to find a way to best utilize the passion, intensity, and undeniable talent of the team’s talented cornerback, may prove to be the greatest loss of all from that evening outside of Phoenix.
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