High Stakes Leadership (When Decisions Are Critical) | Business LockerRoom

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By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

Feb 15
high stakes leadership

High Stakes Leadership and Critical Decisions

by Kelly Riggs


Following Super Bowl LII, an interesting question was posed on social media regarding one of the dramas surrounding the game, and it is related to the idea of “high stakes leadership.”

The New England Patriots were surrendered 374 yards passing to a “back-up” quarterback, including 65 yards and a touchdown during an Eagles 4th quarter drive that erased a 33-32 Pats lead. Oddly, one of the Patriot’s starting defensive backs, Malcolm Butler, was inexplicably benched for the game. It is not known why exactly Butler didn’t play – although rumors abound.

So, the question posed was this: Did head coach Bill Belichick do the right thing by benching Butler when his contribution was obviously needed?

Of course, that’s typically a question for a sports radio talk show, or a fan blog, or something similar. However, what made the question relevant outside of the sports world was that the question was posed from a leadership perspective. Was it good leadership? Or bad leadership?

Should you set aside corporate rules or cultural norms if it means potentially losing a big deal? How much are you willing to overlook to win? #leadershipClick To Tweet

The question of rules and leadership became a topic because Butler apparently did or said something that caused Belichick to bench him. Or, maybe it was the way he performed during the year. Or, perhaps, in Belchick’s mind, Butler simply didn’t match up well against the Eagles offensive scheme. Theories abound.

The comments following the posted question were quite interesting. Why? Because the responses are actually common and quite predictable when a high-stakes leadership scenario occurs:

Someone does or says something that the leader must/should address in some way. The stakes are high. Many people will be affected by the ultimate decision; i.e., the decision has a high probability of impacting the team, and the decision will likely impact perceptions of the leader and the culture of the organization.

Before we look at the responses, consider the following points. These are not criticisms, just observations of what typically happens in these scenarios (and yes, I have been guilty):

  • When the results following a critical decision don’t go well, everyone becomes a critic, and (suddenly) everyone is an expert. The critics people know exactly what should have been done and why. They can tell you a dozen reasons why the right solution was obvious and why anyone else would’ve gotten it right. Of course, this is why leadership is difficult – the leader has to make a decision when the stakes are high, usually with two competing sets of arguments (neither is perfect and both will be criticized), without the benefit of knowing what the final result will be.
  • People who criticize a leadership decision in hindsight typically make a number of assumptions about the situation – usually to fit their own viewpoint. They claim to know the circumstances of what happened. They know exactly what the leader was thinking and why they did what they did. They assign motives to the leader, often with little, if any, knowledge of the details. Their thought process focuses almost exclusively on the outcome and assumes – if failure occurs – that the decision was automatically wrong.
  • When a player (employee) makes a mistake, there is an overwhelming tendency for critics to minimize that person’s actions. Instead, the focus is on the leader and his/her actions. When the results are bad, the leader is blamed and the other person is often forgiven, defended, or overlooked.

This is what makes leadership so incredibly difficult.

It can be a no-win scenario. And everyone knows better…after the fact.

Four Typical Criticisms of Difficult Leadership Decisions

The most common response to this “leadership” question about Belichick was that he had done the right thing; that leadership is difficult, and it is most difficult when the stakes are highest. Further, respondents made the case that rules and norms help create the culture, and the Pat’s history of winning is due, in large part, to that culture. #doyourjob

However, there were several other themes, which I have found to be common in this type of difficult scenario.

1. Contrast/Comparison.

This one goes something like this: Oh, if this had been Brady or Gronk, Belichick would’ve made an exception. No way he puts one of those guys on the bench. Or, like this: If Belichick didn’t already have a couple of Super Bowl wins, he would never have done this.

In each case, critics change the scenario slightly, and then claim the decision in those situations would be different, so the decision is flawed (or hypocritical).

Which is flawed logic at its best.

Another variation of contrast/comparison was obvious in this comment:

“One of my 3 nieces dropped [an] iPad on the cement outside and cracked the screen the day before the Super Bowl. The iPad is never allowed to be outside and they have been told to never run while holding it. These rules have always been clear. Should the punishment have been that all 3 should not have been allowed to go to the Super Bowl party the following day and see all their cousins and close friends?”

Seriously? This comparison is flawed in a number of ways, but the point is that people will often create flawed comparisons to support their reasoning or bolster their opinions.

In reality, Belichick has traded away good players for attitude issues before. Randy Moss and Jamie Collins, for example. Like him or not, Belichick has created a culture in which people are expected to play and act a certain way.

Here is an important question to consider: Do you think the Patriots’ culture and Belichick’s expectations were a mystery to Butler? If he did, indeed, act in a way contrary to the culture or its expectations, why is that decision not criticized rather than Belichick’s?

2. Ego.

Several comments suggested that the only reason Belichick held Butler out of the Super Bowl was his insufferable pride or ego. In this scenario, Belichick is just showing off his power and authority, and making sure everyone knows he’s the boss.

Sometimes, the critique sounds like this: “Who does he think he is? He’s made tons of mistakes, but when it’s someone else the rules are different.”

In my opinion, this particular criticism is a complete farce for two reasons: 1) If the leader is actually inconsistent and doesn’t own up to his/her own mistakes, the culture will become toxic and the criticism will be rampant. That’s not true with the Patriots. 2) Much more importantly, if previous mistakes preclude a leader from making tough decisions, then tough decisions will NEVER be made. From that perspective, anyone can get away with anything, without consequences, because the leader has made mistakes in the past – a recipe for chaos.

A variant of the “ego” theme is this: “He might’ve made the right decision at the time, but once he saw the Patriots couldn’t stop the Eagles, he should’ve changed his mind, but his ego wouldn’t let him.” In other words, the critics may have agreed with the decision when it was easy, but when the going got tough, they changed their minds.

3. Circumstances.

This one is always tricky. It’s the idea that when the stakes are really high, you can make exceptions to the standard. Like the Super Bowl, for instance. It’s the freaking Super Bowl, right? You might keep Butler out of a preseason game, but the Super Bowl??

Of course, this means character, or values, or standards are subject to circumstances, which guarantees future problems. In the real world, if a salesperson, for example, brings in big revenue, but also cuts corners, or is a really bad fit for the culture, or blows up other departments, they should get a pass. Why? Because the stakes are so high; the revenue production is too high to jeopardize.

Unfortunately, trust is the ultimate currency in leadership. To break the rules and allow behavior that is in contradiction to team norms may help today, but it will create a myriad of problems tomorrow. And, though it may be hard to measure in the near-term, it costs a lot in terms of the impact on other employees.

4. Democracy.

This opinion declares that the leader shouldn’t make the decision, the team should. Like this: “He doesn’t have the right to make that decision.” After all, the decision will have a wide-ranging impact and it’s simply not fair to penalize the entire team. However, if the team decides to keep Butler out of the game, so be it (although they obviously won’t).

This response is basically the same as No. 3 above since it is based on the stakes of the decision. Turn it over to the team and let them decide. Which sounds great on the surface but will present a whole battery of problems in the future.

The real challenge is that people typically vote for “character” and “integrity” and “accountability” right up until the decision will have a negative impact on them personally. So, at what point do we stand on those principles?

Answer: When it’s someone else.

High Stakes Leadership

Leadership is just freaking HARD.

It is extraordinarily difficult to establish a winning culture, to develop trust with players (employees), and to act according to the values, expectations, and norms created for the organization. But that is exactly what effective leaders must do.

Otherwise, there is no leadership.

It’s not as though Belichick’s decision (love him or hate him) regarding Butler is a surprise. Any player who has been a part of the Pats culture for years, as Butler had been, will know exactly what Belichick expects, what the rules are, and how he coaches. They will also know what the reaction will be to poor decisions, bad attitudes, and selfish behavior.

What happens is that perspectives are dramatically skewed by results.

Imagine for a moment that the Patriots had somehow held on to win, 33-32. Or, imagine they didn’t give up a late fumble (caused by a failure on offense) and ultimately drove down the field to score the winning TD as they have so often done over the years. My sense is that more people would applaud Belichick for holding fast to principle. They would be more likely to see the value of culture and character, and note that it is that very culture that allowed them to overcome the poor decision made by Butler (assuming that adverse actions by Butler precipitated Belichick’s decision).

Something happened. I don’t know what that was because I wasn’t there. But human nature typically leads people to immediately attack or criticize the leader if the outcome of that decision doesn’t go well.

Unfortunately, if the final result is THE factor in making a decision about a player (or employee), that team (or company) is in trouble. How far will you go? How much will you tolerate? What kind of culture does that create and how will it impact future performance?

As a good friend once told me, “You get to choose your decisions. You don’t get to choose your consequences.”

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About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”


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