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Redskins: A lesson in low expectations

New Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has a problem on his hands, and his players know it. In Thomas Boswell's column in the Post today, linebacker London Fletcher says "I don't know whether you want to call it playing down to the level of the opponent, but whatever you call it, we definitely do that against teams that haven't won in a long time."

That was definitely the case last night, when the now 1-2 Redskins lost to one of the worst teams in the NFL in truly embarrassing fashion. Not only hadn't the St. Louis Rams won at home in two years, Fletcher remarks, but they haven't scored 30 points (the number they posted against the Redskins last night) against a team in even longer. "This has happened year after year," his teammate Phillip Daniels said. "We've all got to look in the mirror."

Daniels and Fletcher nicely summarize a common problem leaders face: lowered expectations have a way of being an obstacle to higher performance. How should leaders manage teams that have a habit of playing to the level of their competition?

The problem might be most apparent with sports teams, but it happens in business and politics all the time. Just look at the recent primary losses by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty and Delaware senatorial candidate Mike Castle. Sure, the enthusiasm of the Tea Party and high-wattage endorsements of their opponents by Sarah Palin had an impact on the two senate races, and a tide of anti-incumbent sentiment is surely playing a role. But in each case, a win by the competition was seen as a long shot, and Wednesday morning quarterbacking after the Tuesday primaries included carping about not taking the chances of losing seriously enough.

Business teams, too, have a way of overlooking the possibility of their competitions' success. There's a whole genre of "disruptive innovators," a term coined by Harvard professor Clayton Christenson's work, in which companies get blindsided by unexpected competitors or new strategies of their opponents. Business history is littered with such examples, from American auto makers falling behind the Japanese to, more recently, last week's bankruptcy of Blockbuster. When a little DVD-by-mail upstart now known as Netflix came on the scene, the video store chain behemoth likely didn't take it seriously until it was too late.

There were a lot of things that went wrong in Sunday night's game. The Redskins struggled with mounting penalties. Third-down conversions were few and far between. The offense rushed for only one yard in the second half. It's possible, of course, to pin the loss simply on those issues.

But that disregards the players' own recognition of the problem--see above--and the fact that losses to low-ranked teams has become a pattern. Boswell notes that two years ago, the Redskins ended their playoff hopes by losing to then 1-11-1 Cincinnati Bengals, and reached "perhaps the lowest point in franchise history in a generation" last year when it lost in "an NFL disgrace" to the Detroit Lions, a perennial league bottom-dweller which at the time had 19 straight losses.

Whatever may be causing it, whether players' egos or ill-prepared coaches, there appears to be an expectations problem in the Redskins' locker room. Shanahan would do well to remind his players--and his coaches--of the famous mantra of former Intel CEO Andy Grove: "Only the paranoid survive." At the very least, every opponent, no matter what their record, should be treated with equal amounts of respect.

By Jena McGregor

 |  September 27, 2010; 9:04 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Goal Setting , Leadership advice , Sports leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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