Truth Hurts, but It Also Builds

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A long time ago, football coaches formed interesting sentences with words and said useful things that made sense. Then something happened, and they became hypnotically boring and habitually evasive.

An exception is Redskins Coach Jim Zorn, who has no trouble talking, even when he uses the wrong or imprecise words; in fact, sometimes his wrong words are even more descriptive than the right words, especially when his energetic search for concision involves antic pantomimes.

Zorn's frank expressions are taken to be the epitome of inexperience as a coach, and the effect on his players is so far equivocal. It's been suggested he needs to learn to be less honest.

That would be a mistake. First, it would mean conceding to a stereotype of modern NFL players: They have the emotional fortitude of principessas, and unless they are treated with a charade of niceties, they will fall into palpitations of shock and refuse to perform. This does a disservice to them.

Second, hypnotic boredom doesn't really work as a strategy. Fired Jets coach Eric Mangini was so robotic he even refused to say which leg a player hurt -- how'd that work out for him? Cowboys Coach Wade Phillips wallpapered over the feuding mess in his locker room with false amiability. That worked, too.

Actually, Zorn's paint-thinner brand of honesty is a critical quality if he's going to transform the Redskins from a second-rate franchise into something better.

Candor is an indisputable requirement in a leader in a high-risk enterprise, especially one seeking to refashion a team into a higher-functioning one, according to Col. Thomas A. Kolditz, head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy, and author of the book "In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended on It." It's a riveting manual that weaves first-person accounts from soldiers, captains of industry, firefighters and other command situations.

"The leader's job is to create for that team the reality of their performance," Kolditz said in a phone interview from a parachuting competition in Arizona, with the whine of airplanes in the background, as he watched cadets float to earth. "The players get feedback from the press and public, and on all these teams, you have a lot of testosterone and ego on one side of the equation, but a very high need for team interdependence and teamwork on the other side of the equation. Sometimes egos get in way of making a candid appraisal, so it's very important for a coach.

"Candor allows them to focus on the things getting in the way of their success. Candor is not necessarily abusive or mean-spirited. It's just honest. And right now I'm trying as hard as I can not to say that it's unsurprising to me that in Washington D.C. they think there's too much candor on their football team."

How Zorn's honest appraisals are received this offseason, up and down the chain, will say a lot about just how poisoned an outfit the Redskins are by mediocrity. Zorn seems to sense as much, and made a point of acknowledging his words were "not always well received" in his news conference on Monday.

As he spoke, he sounded a lot like Kolditz, especially when he described how he had bitten into quarterback Jason Campbell on the sideline in a season-ending loss to San Francisco, trying to get something more than a neutral performance out of him.

"As a player, sometimes it hurts to hear some of the things you're hearing," Zorn said. "Like, I was after Jason Campbell yesterday on the sideline, I was in his business. Just very, 'As a matter of fact, here's what I see.' And that's hard to hear sometimes, from a coach to a player or a player to a coach. But hopefully it builds strength, and it doesn't build bitterness."

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