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William C. Taylor

William C. Taylor

Founding editor of Fast Company and co-author of Mavericks at Work, William C. Taylor is working on his next book, Practically Radical. Follow him on Twitter @practicallyrad

Elbow Grease

The days before (and immediately after) a Super Bowl are filled with all kinds of excited chatter, some of which is even about the game. There's anticipation about the ads. There's speculation about the future of television and mega-media events. And there are the inevitable analogies between sports and business, and, in particular, the tendency to anoint the head coaches as masters of strategy and leadership.

As I add my voice to this last tendency, let me first strike a note of caution. The personal style of most professional football coaches is appalling: arrogant, paranoid, humorless. That was never more clear than at the outset of the 2007 NFL season, when "Spygate" reared its ugly head. How did Patriots coach Bill Belichick react to getting caught red-handed breaking NFL rules? He issued two written statements in which he apologized (grudgingly) for his actions, and then held two press conferences at which he refused to say anything above and beyond what was in the written statements. It was a creepy performance--one that underscored how weird even the most accomplished football coaches can be.

But the limitations are about more than style. Football is literally a zero-sum game--every Sunday (just like at the Super Bowl) there's a winner, a loser, and nothing in between. Everything about business, especially these days, is the "in between." Your supplier can be a competitor, your rival in one market can be a partner in another. And all sorts of stakeholders (especially customers) want to see companies and their leaders demonstrate a set of values in sync with their strategy to create economic value.

In business, "how you play the game" is truly as important as whether you win or lose in every deal. So even as we use the big game as an opportunity to talk about leadership, let's use our heads and recognize the limits of the comparisons.

That said, Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt made one big leadership decision that's worthy of serious discussion--his decision to rely on veteran QB Kurt Warner over Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart. Coach Whisenhunt chose substance over sizzle, hard-won experience over youthful exuberance, discipline over star power. That choice led the Cardinals to the big game--and I hope it leads CEOs to rethink some of their decisions about whom they rely on in tough times.

It's worth noting that Kurt Warner is enjoying a new burst of success on the national sports stage just as Malcolm Gladwell's book on success, Outliers, is atop the bestseller lists. One of the stars of Outliers is a psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson, who investigated three different groups of violin students at the Berlin Academy of Music: the unquestioned stars, those who were good but not great, and those who had no hope of becoming professional musicians.

What separated the stars from everyone else? It wasn't raw talent, Ericsson concluded. (Every student had huge talent.) It was sheer persistence--those who practiced harder did better, and those who practiced insanely hard became wildly successful. Gladwell dubs this phenomenon the "10,000-hour rule." Becoming great at anything--sports, science, business--requires ten years of practice and 1,000 hours of practice per year. "Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness," he argues.

In other words, practice really does make perfect--and Kurt Warner is the personification of that old-fashioned rule in the world of professional sports. Now compare that to how most companies are reacting to the economic meltdown. They are encouraging their highest-paid, most-experienced performers--that is, those with the most practice--to be the first to leave.

Last year, in perhaps the most famous example of this brain-dead, knee-jerk policy, Circuit City, the giant electronics retailer, announced its so-called "wage management initiative." The plan: Fire its most talented and experienced employees in favor of younger workers making less money. Of course, customers who visited the stores looking for advice got much less of it, which meant they took their business elsewhere. The result? Last week, Circuit City announced it was liquidating.

It would be funny were it not so common--and so wrong-headed.

So how's this for a leadership lessons from the Super Bowl? You don't survive a downturn by encouraging your most experienced people to leave. Perhaps more business leaders can reflect on Ken Whisenhunt's decision and decide to hold on to those employees who have had the most practice in their careers.

By William C. Taylor

 |  January 25, 2009; 11:29 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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