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What one missed field goal can teach us about leadership

There’s a set of foundational challenges every leader must solve for to drive organization and business success.
A leadership breakdown on Monday Night Football

If you missed week one of Monday Night Football this season—a highly anticipated Broncos-Seahawks matchup—you missed a great example of a leadership and process breakdown.

With the game on the line, Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett opted to let his kicker try for a 64-yard field goal, rather than let his elite quarterback try to gain just five yards on the ground. A “must win” game was lost. Predictably. Only twice in the history of the sport has a kicker scored from 64+ yards out. When asked to explain his baffling call, Coach Hackett said his kicker told him he could do it.

New to the Broncos organization, Hackett and his quarterback were supposed to quickly transform a failing football enterprise into a thriving one. Instead, due to a breakdown in the decision-making process, not having essential information at hand, and perhaps lack of alignment across the team, they must now win back the trust of the locker room, stakeholders, and the entire fan base.

Common leader challenges

If you’re a leader, you can probably relate to the challenges faced by Coach Hackett. Rushed or ill-informed decision making, communication breakdowns, and confusion about roles and responsibilities are common leader challenges, especially in large tech companies trying to move fast. Lack of clarity or alignment around priorities, wasteful dead-end projects, and a focus on quantity of activity over quality of results are others. Each situation is unique but the results are ultimately the same: waning trust and confidence in leadership, low employee morale, high turnover, and game losing performance.

Common tools to combat them

If these leader challenges are common, so are the business processes leaders put in place to overcome them. Here’s the framework we most often see in organizations we work with:

Yet challenges persist

These tools are critical to running things smoothly. When missing, leaders often rush to implement them. When they aren’t working as planned, leaders often double down on them, assuming the problem isn’t the tools but a commitment to using them.

But more often than not, challenges persist. Despite significant investments in process, organizations continue to struggle with confusion, inefficient decision making, low morale and dwindling trust. What’s going on?

Importance of purpose

To start, many organizations struggle due to an under-investment in purpose.

No amount of process can make up for a lack of clarity in purpose. Without a clear north star, your team can lose its way, focusing on activity and short-term goals rather than what they should ultimately be trying to achieve.

Coach Hackett, his kicker and quarterback became too focused on reaching a specific spot on the football field – the 46-yard line. When the team reached that marker, they went for the field goal because it was “in the kicker’s range.” They failed to assess risks and took the approach with the least chance of success, costing them the game. Whatever the reason for Coach Hackett’s choice, in our experience we see that without organizational focus on a clear purpose, frenetic activity, short-term goals, and poor decision making frequently fill the void.

The first step to creating a thriving organization is clearly defining your purpose – one that’s aspirational but achievable, and brings people together with a sense of pride. But before jumping from purpose to process there’s another critical step to take. To create a healthy, happy, high-performing workforce, you need to focus intentionally on what makes an organization healthy, happy and high performing – and ensure that you build your organization’s business processes to solve for those things.

5 atomic units of leadership

We call these fundamentals the atomic units of leadership, because together, they represent the set of core jobs every leader must do well to create a high functioning organization capable of achieving great things and providing a sense of accomplishment and belonging. In short, these [em]power the purpose:

  1. Alignment – Everyone is on board. Employees understand and believe in the purpose of the organization and the path to getting there, including how projects will be prioritized and resources (capital, human, time) allocated.
  2. Accountability – Employees know what they need to do and get it done. At every level of the organization, clear roles, responsibilities and reporting drive accountability for the predictable attainment of goals.
  3. Capability – Employees have what they need to do great work and grow. They’re empowered to perform their jobs efficiently, collaborate effectively, and learn and develop new skills. You assess and invest to improve time, information and decision making processes among leadership.
  4. Risk reduction – You’re out ahead of risks. You and your team identify and assess risks early, allowing you to adapt and minimize their impact before they jeopardize organization goals.
  5. Brand building – Your “superpowers” are evident, and so is the unique value your organization is creating and delivering to customers. Recognition and validation of your organization’s value drives a powerful sense of pride and belonging within your team.
Fundamentals every leader must solve for in order to drive org and business success

It’s easy to assume progression against these atomic units of leadership will be the natural outcome of your RoB, communications, people management and other business processes. Therein lies the frustration – they don’t necessarily follow. But with clarity on your core jobs as a leader—on the atomic units of leadership—you can build better scaffolding and ensure that everything you put in place works together, better. When you focus on the atomic units intentionally, you can find opportunities to make your processes work more effectively as part of a coordinated plan.

For example, to drive alignment across the organization, you can coordinate your RoB, communications and people management processes:

The point is, by making explicit which combination of atomic units of leadership each of your core leadership business processes must solve for, you can better understand how to construct each and how each can support others.

What if Coach Hackett had solved for risk reduction, alignment, and accountability first? Would he have taken the safer route and won the game as expected? We’ll never know, but we can take heed and take a better path.

Learn more about how Sparklos can help you optimize your processes and create a thriving, high performance organization.

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