Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and quarterback Robert Griffin III (Ricky Carioti/TWP)

Two Redskins leaders had very different messages for their teams following the Redskins’ 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers Sunday.

Here’s Mike Shanahan, the team’s coach, in the post-game press conference: “When you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come.” While he did say he “takes full responsibility” for the team’s third loss in a row, he also said he was “disappointed” and that “now we find out what kind of character we’ve got.”

Contrast that with what Robert Griffin III, the team’s star quarterback and on-field leader had to say. He vowed that after the bye week, “I’ll come back and I’ll be a better quarterback the second half of the season for us, for this team. And preferably, everybody comes back with the same mind-set.” He went on to say that after the off week, “I think you’ll see a different team. . . . If they see their quarterback out there putting it on the line every single play it makes them want to put it on the line every single play. It’s more about inspiring guys.”

As the Post’s Mike Wise pointed out, and as many NFL pundits are gabbing about following Sunday’s loss, Shanahan’s taunting comments were not the kind of motivational message some players may have wanted to hear. He didn’t count out the playoffs completely (“obviously we’re not out of it statistically”), but he didn’t sound like a leader confident in the team’s prospects, either. As Wise wrote, “of all the people to give up on the season, really, who knew Mike Shanahan would be the first?”

Griffin may be young and a little green, and he is, of course, a player who has no say in the futures of his teammates. But his comments, when compared with his coach’s, are notable for their positivity and their show of belief in his team.

How? Griffin takes some of the fault, admitting he could be a better quarterback (even though it is his teammates who need to be more reliable). He promises he and others will do more after the break. And he reasserts that it is his job to get out there and inspire his team by aiming to be the best on every play.

The contrast illustrates that classic leadership dilemma of which strategy motivates more: the carrot or the stick? When people are down after a big loss or a team failure, does bucking them up with assurances, positivity and the promise of what lies ahead galvanize them most? Or do threats of losing their jobs or the confidence of their coach do more to help them improve their performance?

Both work, and both have their place, of course. Arousing a team to change their game takes a complex combination of praise, challenge and, for some people, an occasional warning. But those doses of fear tend to work best when delivered to a person, or to the group, privately, while continuing to express outward confidence. Next time Shanahan wants to use the stick, it might be best kept between him and his team.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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