In a real crisis, like say if an asteroid threatens to strike the planet, I want Tim Tebow as my leader. I don’t want University of Maryland football coach Randy Edsall, with his faux-militaristic carping, or recently fired Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, with his abrupt shifts from friendly buddy talk to deafening profanity.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” Tebow, the NFL quarterback, told his Denver Broncos teammates solemnly last week, quoting Proverbs. If anyone else said that, the room would have erupted into hooting laughter. When Tebow said it, people believed in him.
People didn’t believe in Boudreau and Edsall, for all of their shouting. Yet they believe in a scripture-spouting kid with a hitch in his arm. Why? Possibly because Tebow grasps something about leadership that Boudreau and Edsall have yet to learn: It’s not about domination but about persuasion. Someone who tries to force others to do his bidding isn’t a leader; he’s a warlord. Leadership only works when other people find you credible and grant you their cooperation.
In the past few weeks, area coaches have given clinics in failed leadership. The Washington Capitals staged a virtual work stoppage on the ice under Boudreau. The Maryland football team quit so badly on Edsall, they lost seven consecutive games by double digits. And the Washington Redskins lost six in a row thanks in part to Mike Shanahan’s misjudgment that the happy-talk of quarterback John Beck was leadership, only it turns out they trust Beck’s fellow signal-caller Rex Grossman more, even when he throws interceptions.
Meantime, Tebow has given us a starkly powerful display of the real thing, and so has the underrated leader who had the guts to hand the team over to him, Broncos Coach John Fox.The Broncos are 5-1 over their last six games, and Fox was smart enough last Sunday to ask Tebow to give the pregame talk that led to a crucial overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers and put them in the playoff hunt.
“I’ve never seen a human who can will himself to win like that,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller told the Denver Post afterward. “He gave us a great speech. We came out fired up. And that was a wrap.”
So what exactly is that mysterious quality called leadership? It’s not exactly charisma; it doesn’t hurt that Tebow gleams like a superhero, but the worst despots are charismatic too. It’s not exactly talent, either. According to experts, one reason we struggle to define it is because we look at it from the wrong side up.
“The academic study of leadership has failed, and the reason is that it focuses on the leader, when the appropriate focus is on the followers,” suggests research psychologist Robert Hogan, who profiles executives for Fortune 500 companies. When we flip the examination of leadership on its head and look at what followers will follow, we get a better idea of what quality we’re talking about.
“What is it the followers are looking for?” he asks. “The focus should be on the work force or the team, and what they perceive. Because if they don’t perceive the right thing in a leader, you’re through.”
Okay, so let’s talk about followership. The truth is, it’s not in our human nature to “follow” anyone very willingly, from an evolutionary standpoint. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm asserts that for 2.5 million years hunter-gatherer societies were so egalitarian they wouldn’t tolerate such a thing as formal “leadership.” Bands awarded temporary authority only for coordination: Someone had to plan the hunt. As soon as the group doubted his competence, or regretted awarding him control, they had clever ways of ridding themselves of him, which anthropologists coolly call “leveling mechanisms.” They ranged from ignoring orders, to casting out of the tribe, to killing.
Seem familiar? Sounds like Boudreau got leveled by a mechanism. Edsall, too.
According to Hogan’s research, followers want four things: integrity, confidence, decision-making and clarity. But just as important is what followers don’t want: irritability, moodiness, untrustworthiness, indecisiveness, needless micro-management and excessive authority. They perceive these things as incompetent, and pretty soon the leveling mechanism kicks in and there is a subtle rebellion. (Incidentally, I would be a terrible leader, according to Hogan’s personality test. Too irritable. “Volcanic,” he announced.)
With that in mind, let’s reconsider our local teams, and ask why the followers refused to follow.
Boudreau is an extremely likable man and expert coach; the Capitals followed him cheerfully until this season, and he was hired by Anaheim less than three days after getting fired. But after winning just two playoff rounds in four years, Boudreau decided he needed to get tougher, especially on star Alex Ovechkin. This from a guy who already had a nasal intensity, and who before his first-ever practice with the Capitals in 2007 decided to chastise Ovechkin solely for the purpose of making an impression. And who in 2010 was captured on tape giving an intermission diatribe that consisted of 17 obscenities in 90 seconds. Deafening profanity can be useful — until it’s numbingly repetitive. At a certain point it didn’t motivate anymore and became tiresome. “If people say, ‘He’s just manipulating us,’ at that point you’re done,” Hogan says.
Edsall’s act with the Terps was just sort of low and snarling and alienating. He treated the nine-win squad he inherited from the far more accomplished Ralph Friedgen as if it was in need of discipline and not up to his standards. But there’s a difference between rigor, which builds confidence, and petty puppeteering, which destroys enthusiasm. Fact is, Edsall’s never won anything bigger than a PapaJohns.com Bowl. Some of the Terps responded by nicknaming him the “warden” and by playing with stunning lassitude and apathy, losing 10 games.
Edsall has shown zero recognition he is the problem; instead he had the temerity to compare himself to the New England Patriots. Edsall might want to look at a study on airline crew performance that Hogan cites. It found that the number of flight errors significantly correlated to the personality of the captain. Crews led by captains perceived as agreeable, self-confident and emotionally reliable made the fewest errors. Crews with captains considered arrogant, hostile, passive-aggressive or dictatorial made the most errors.
Leaders lose their teams, Hogan says, for the simple reason that followers withdraw their consent to be led. The late Red Auerbach, the legendary coach and executive with the Boston Celtics, always said that you don’t motivate teams, you motivate players, one by one, by building relationships.
“The key to the relationship is trust, and if they don’t trust you, you’re done,” Hogan says.
A leader is worth nothing without voluntary commitment, because the followers are actually more in charge of the outcome. Every aspiring leader should ask, “Would people choose to follow me?” and understand who the boss really is.