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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."

Kolditz analyzes and surveys leadership in dangerous circumstances, such as sky-diving outfits and units in Iraq, and writes treatises applying the lessons to the private, public and social sectors. He is also the coach of Army's sport parachuting team. He argues high-risk environments are valuable crucibles in which real leaders are forged, because in "stark, unforgiving reality," people unerringly sense phoniness or someone who seems less than fully aware. Under threat, he suggested, they naturally gravitate to more authentic leaders.

Studies of leadership have found the value of truth-telling increases with the risk of the endeavor. In a low-risk activity like business, an organization can get by with inauthenticity from a leader and not suffer, but a parachute squad prizes frankness because the penalty for crisis-denial is death.

Where does the NFL rank, in terms of risk? Probably somewhere between bond trading and parachuting. The players are under physical threat, and the stakes in terms of their "life savings" are also high.

Nobody dies if a team loses, but livelihoods and bodies are on the line. It's therefore imperative Zorn be perceived as authentic by his players, even if they don't like what he says. Which they apparently do: Out of the playoffs and with nothing at stake, the Redskins didn't quit on Zorn, and instead responded with two of their stronger performances to close out the season.

But finishing 8-8 doesn't mean he has completely won them over, either. The transition to new values can be awkward and take some time, especially if the team members are unaccustomed to Zorn's type of confrontation, Kolditz noted. In some cultures "there is too much of an emphasis on face-saving to withstand that level of candor," he said.

Face-saving is the issue that has caused the most trouble for Zorn. Most notoriously, he publicly called out Clinton Portis for missed assignments after the running back sat out practice, nursing injuries. The sensitive but egotistical running back exploded, trashing his coach on John Thompson's radio show. The NFL code seems to be that private honesty is okay, but public honesty is dicey. Zorn essentially invited the world into internal team issues, and some players didn't like it.

But according to Kolditz, Zorn did the right thing, because public exposure of uneven habits are necessary to curing them in the organization as a whole.

Whether it was calling out Portis for being in the wrong place on a play, or the rookie receivers for being lazy and running the wrong routes, or Campbell for making a poor read, Zorn's policy of public accountability unquestionably chafed. But in Kolditz's in-extremis manual, silence and privacy are not options when confronting mistakes.

"If the wrong kind of behavior is happening on the team and the coach is allowing it without talking about it openly, then he's effectively endorsing it," Kolditz said.

There are of course a thousand subtle and nontransferable differences between Zorn's job as a head coach and Kolditz's squad leaders who are in extremis. Even so, truthfulness promises to be a core issue for Zorn going forward.

"Men occasionally stumble on the truth, but most of the them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened," Winston Churchill observed. Not Zorn. Whether he is in Washington to stay or not, he won't be hurrying off from the truth.

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