On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Coro Fellows
Young Leaders

Coro Fellows

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these 12 Southern California fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Failure or its aftermath?

Few factors can undermine leadership more than ineffectiveness. The Redskins inept offense has produced little this season, save for calls from an increasingly agitated fan base to change the strategy, personnel, coaching, uniforms and anything else seemingly connected to the team's slow start. At the center of the cacophony is Coach Zorn. Indeed, the greatest threat to his leadership isn't the public seizure of his responsibilities as play-caller; it's his offense's offensive output.

Thus, the question at hand needs some reframing: Perhaps we should ask what puts leadership in a weaker position, the actual failure or the embarrassing aftermath? I argue the former. While Zorn's dismissal as play-caller technically throws his leadership into question, it does so no more than the atrophied offense he has put onto the field thus far. Ultimately, his leadership was undermined as soon as the team started losing. And leaders often fall short: Kennedy's failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and Clinton's aborted mission in Somalia come to mind. In each case, one could argue that the leadership position was most undermined by the failure itself and not by any restructuring of power that occurred afterwards.

However, there may be hope for Zorn after all. Kennedy and Clinton's ability to reflect, recognize their missteps, and accept change created future successes: Kennedy's Cuban missile crisis and Clinton's Kosovo intervention both revealed a shift in approach. Publicly, it appears Zorn has handled the change with humility, acknowledging his team's deficiencies and accepting the adjustments necessary to get back on track. While his future with the Redskins is currently uncertain, it's nothing that a few touchdown passes can't fix. -- Lanre Akinsiku

Coach Zorn is now confronted with the challenge of middle management. He will continue to be the direct leader of the team that must deliver results on the field, but he must also respond to decisions made by those above him. Having a leadership team that complements a leader's weaknesses is great. Diverse teams with different perspectives are meant to create better results, and there is a greater opportunity for everyone involved to learn--but only if everyone is willing to listen and collaborate. The challenge in this strategy rests on the fact whether or not Coach Zorn can muster up the courage to become a great follower in order to become a stronger leader.

In my last job, I often disagreed with my supervisors' decisions. Each time I had the choice of agreeing with those decisions or putting up a fight. What I noticed is that if I didn't pick my battles carefully, I would ruin myself. How can a team learn to trust your leadership if you can't swallow some pride and trust those above you? It's hard to expect a "team-first" mentality from others when you as a leader do not exhibit it.

Anything Coach Zorn decides to do will become public in the world of professional football. He has shown signs of going either way. The right answer will be the one that genuinely comes from his heart. But whatever choice he makes, he must remember that for a team that has very little going for it this season, the last thing that can shatter the frail hope of morale and momentum is a collapse from within the team itself. Perhaps reminding Coach Zorn of this possibility will alter his response and make him more willing to work with his new partner. -- Jimmy Duong

Bringing in someone to help compensate for a particular weakness of a leader without appearing to undermine his leadership is indeed very tricky. While it is necessary to ensure the leader that s/he is integral to the team, a team must still be able to acknowledge where weakness lies--even if that is within the leadership.

The most effective way to bring in leadership support is to get the leader to buy in to the idea that the team needs the help. This involves getting the leader to recognize the issue, and agree to the plan. By obtaining the leader's input on the proposed plan, s/he will feel like they were a part of the decision-making process. It is also crucial that the leader be the person to introduce the "consultant" to the team and to the public; if the leader isn't seen embracing the consultant and ushering him or her in, it has the potential to create dysfunction within the team by undermining the leader's primacy. -- Miracle McClain

Marty Lawrence, of Spencer Industries, turned to outside help when he wanted to expand into areas new to his business. Since the organization lacked the in-house expertise to do so, hiring an outside consultant helped Lawrence and Spencer Industries quickly advance into the international market and eventually gain more market share.

Similarly, given the Redskins' start, it would have been unwise of Dan Snyder to not seek outside help. In the coming weeks, we will see if the strategy is working. Snyder recognized a weakness in his business, and is working towards strengthening it, just as Lawrence did. When something is spiraling out of control, it has to be checked on many fronts.

To make this process successful, the owner has to first advise the leader of the transition, as Snyder informed Coach Zorn last week. The owner also has to lay out clear benefits of the arrangement. For example, the Redskins now have an expert consultant in their corner for a number of weeks, and Coach Zorn will have the opportunity to reevaluate himself and his approach to the team.

Secondly, the person that appears to be "undermined"--Coach Zorn in this case--needs to understand his weaknesses and be receptive of the change for the good of the team. As Machiavelli suggests, sometimes the appearance of something is more important than the actual something. Appearing to undermine Zorn may seem as a shock, but an early step in resuscitation is to shock the system. Maybe Snyder sees this as the needed shock and hopes that from it, both Coach Zorn and the Redskins come to life. -- Clayton Rosa

When a hired gun moseys into the office, the staff will understandably be filled with anxiety as it considers the possibilities of downsizing, layoffs, and firings. So it's hardly a stretch to interpret the mid-season hiring of an offensive consultant as a signal that Head Coach Zorn simply isn't cutting it for the Redskins front office.

Good leaders accept additional help and, more importantly, understand when they aren't achieving results. Starting out 2-4 after a 1-3 preseason isn't results, and such drastic coaching changes are most often made at the end of seasons because it breaks up the direction and morale of the team. While these statistics and considerations don't necessarily negate Zorn's leadership abilities, owner Dan Snyder directly undermines Coach Zorn by taking away play-calling responsibility.

Bringing someone in as a consultant is definitely tricky, and in order to maintain morale and some sense of continuity it is important to clearly define the consultant's role as one who provides advice drawn from his or her area of expertise. It is also helpful to allow the leader to have some say on consultant's scope and role. Finally, leaders like Zorn can be reminded that winning games may require additional help, and that ultimately his leadership could use the assistance effectively to achieve results. -- Parsa Sobhani

Dan Snyder may have been doing the Redskins a favor, but who will pick up the pieces when his consultant leaves? Now that Jim Zorn's competencies have been publicly questioned, his leadership has been diluted, and will have to be reconstituted in the aftermath of the season.

The key is whether Snyder's decision was a short-term solution or part of a long-term strategy. As a quick-fix answer to the Redskins' woes, Snyder's move certainly puts Zorn's leadership identity in jeopardy. Posing Zorn as a leader who cannot perform in high-pressure situations will only create a sense of unreliability in his position and a feeling of instability among the team. If, however, Snyder aims to proactively address the motives for his decision and help Zorn reevaluate his coaching abilities over the coming months, the Redskins will emerge with a renewed leader at its helm.

Growing a leader takes time. Bringing in outside help will undermine a leader if treated as a temporary solution to a larger problem. In the context of a greater purpose, however, questioning a leader's competencies can be the most judicious decision, no matter the immediate aftermath. -- Neeta Sonalkar

By Coro Fellows

 |  October 27, 2009; 1:26 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Bad call | Next: Crippling the coach


Please report offensive comments below.

The responses are ironic - the commenters "get it", but the Leadership Panel doesn't.

Posted by: MillPond2 | October 29, 2009 7:40 PM
Report Offensive Comment

This article misses the point entirely. Snyder needs to hire a competent GM and stay the heck out of his/her decision-making. He knows not a whit about building and maintaining a good football team -- that's been amply demonstrated. Snyder himself could be involved by trying to patch up his relationship with the fans -- it's all about the money no matter how much he says he loves the game.

Posted by: seaduck2001 | October 29, 2009 5:44 PM
Report Offensive Comment

When Bay of Pigs failed, it wasn't the field commander or CIA chief that went on national TV and bore full responsibility for the failure; it was the President of the United States.
Snyder has yet to "man-up" and publicly accept responsibility for any of the Redskins' numerous dramas & fiascoes of the past decade.
Certainly, there is enough blame to extend to every level of the Redskins organization, but Zorn's place in the corporate structure is that of GM & Chrysler dealers; their ability to "move units" did/does not rest solely on their marketing savvy and ability to motivate sales staffs. They are not responsible for corporate mismanagement and inferior products.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | October 29, 2009 11:04 AM
Report Offensive Comment

"Kennedy's failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and Clinton's aborted mission in Somalia "

Bay of Pigs was conceived and primarily planned by the CIA during the Eisenhower administration. Somalia was conceived, planned and executed firstly by the George H.W. Bush administration, with none other than Richard "Dick" Cheney serving as defense secretary.

The premise of the Bay of Pigs invasion was based on the laughable CIA notion that Cuba would support a bunch of co-opted "freedom fighters" after most Cubans had recently fought for their freedom against the Battista regime.

The premise of the Somalia presence was never clear beyond the moral intent of keeping care packages intended for starving populations away from roving bands of fighters and pirates.

I guess one could compare a couple of operations doomed to failure by their mere concept to a talent-youth-and-vigor-bankrupt football team. In all three cases leadership at the top level failed to deliver. Kennedy and Clinton were not football coaches, they were presidents; in that sense, the real analogy should not be directed at Jim Zorn but Daniel Snyder.

Posted by: Meepo | October 29, 2009 10:10 AM
Report Offensive Comment

All of this talk about Zorn's leadership is fine, but I think it misses the point. The leadership buck has to stop with Dan Snyder. His ineffective leadership will trickle down throughout the organization, and he is the one leader who cannot be fired and replaced.

Until this top leadership issue is resolved, nothing can be done to fix the leadership issues at the lower levels.

Posted by: tullyb67 | October 29, 2009 7:59 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company