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John R. Ryan
Military/Administrative leader

John R. Ryan

John R. Ryan is president of the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive education.

Keen Eye, Good Choices

Leaders in all sectors can learn a great deal from Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt on guiding under-performing men and women to new levels of performance. Whisenhunt has shown us how to 1) pick a talented leader; 2) coach that leader effectively; and 3) surround the leader with great talent and then give them a plan that helps them get better each week.

It's obvious to everyone now that Kurt Warner is still a top performer in the NFL. But Whisenhunt gave Warner a chance that many other coaches would not have. How did he do it? First, he looked at Warner's track record. It was spotty at points but extremely impressive at others. Here's a guy who early in his career had been a Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl MVP. More than that, Warner was also regarded by fellow players as a real leader, someone who commanded attention and respect. So Whisenhunt knew Warner had a proven track record and considerable talent even if he hadn't lived up to it for several seasons.

Then Whisenhunt took a second critical step - understanding what had held back Warner's performance in recent years. Apart from a string of injuries, Warner was prone, in Whisenhunt's estimation, to committing too many turnovers and getting sacked too often. He told Warner point blank that he needed to improve in those areas if he hoped to win the starting quarterback job with the Cardinals. Whisenhunt knew Warner is a very coachable player, a guy who likes to learn and challenge himself. So it's not a surprise that Warner took his advice seriously and made protecting the football a top priority this season. He ended up with 30 touchdown passes against just 14 interceptions.

Finally, Whisenhunt put some great talent around Warner. He understood that even the greatest leader in the world can't win consistently without talented teammates. So the Cardinals gave Warner a squad of talented wide receivers and a rebuilt offensive line that helped improve the running game and gave him time to make good decisions and good throws. As he should, Warner frequently gives his teammates credit for his stunning success this year.

On paper, the Cardinals really have no business being in the Super Bowl. But that's where they are - and many more gifted squads and athletes in the NFL will be sitting home watching. The credit ultimately goes to Whisenhunt who built this group into a winning team - and leaders everywhere would be wise to borrow from his playbook.

By John R. Ryan

 |  January 27, 2009; 11:13 AM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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With respect to Samson151's comment:
"It's the equivalent of a scientist who examines only a test's positive results and ignores the negative ones."

As a scientist, I'd have to say, no it's not. The Cardinals were successful this year, whereas other teams were not, nor have they been in past seasons. Kurt Warner was successful this year, whereas in the recent past he has not been. So why not examine possible reasons why this may have happened, comparing positive results to negative results for a team/player for a season/career? It's not a controlled experiment, but it is potentially very instructive. What's the alternative - to just say "It happened for no reason"?

Posted by: cgil | January 28, 2009 1:43 PM
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All true, except next year when the Cards struggle, Whisenhunt will revert to worrying about his job. After all, he works for one of the most unreliable ownership groups in pro sports.

Always interesting reading articles built around the common error of selecting a winner and declaring how they must have arrived at that point. It's the equivalent of a scientist who examines only a test's positive results and ignores the negative ones.

Posted by: Samson151 | January 28, 2009 2:49 AM
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