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 lots of anticipation about the ads, and what they say about the state of Madison Avenue's creative prowess. There's lots of speculation about the future of mass media, and how few TV events are still capable of holding the attention of tens of millions of people. And of course, there are the inevitable analogies between sports and business, and, in particular, the tendency to anoint the winning coach as a master of strategy, motivation, and leadership.
Might I urge everyone to raise a skeptical eyebrow on this last tendency?
A Football Coach Isn't a Business Genius
As parents, we've all reminded our kids that professional athletes are not role models. Just because you can run fast or hit hard doesn't mean you're a good person. Well, what goes for kids and their reverence for athletes goes for executives and their reverence for coaches. Just because someone has won a few Super Bowl trophies (or World Series rings) doesn't mean that successful coaches have much to teach us about how to build and run great companies.
Quite the opposite, in fact. The personal style of most professional football coaches is appalling: arrogant, paranoid, humorless. As a long-time Bostonian, but a lifetime New York Giants fan, I have followed Patriots coach Bill Belichick with a certain morbid fascination. I'll never forget his performance during "Spygate" a few years back. How did he react to getting caught red-handed breaking NFL rules by taping his opponent's defensive signals from the sidelines? 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 (and didn't even read the statements aloud.) As reporters asked the inevitable questions, Belichick did his best impression of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. But instead of "ten minutes to Wapner" it was "we're getting ready for San Diego" and "I'm moving on." It was a genuinely creepy performance--this supposed leader of men wasn't man enough to face the music. Watch it here:Belichick apology
Winning in Business Is Not the Same As Winning In Sports
But the limitations are about more than style. Football is literally a zero-sum game--every Sunday 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. How you conduct yourself is as important as whether or not you land a specific deal. And all sorts of stakeholders (especially customers) want to see that companies and their leaders demonstrate a set of values that are in sync with their strategy to create economic value.
I'm as much of a sports fan as the next guy, and I love the drama and mythology surrounding both the Super Bowl and great coaches. But the next time I am tempted to anoint a successful football coach as a role model for business leadership, I'll think again.