Why I Still Respect Russell Wilson

The only thing deflated from last night’s Super Bowl game is my heart. What a tough way to end the night and a football season. From my previous post, I think you already know who I was rooting for. If you’re new to “Justinland” then you should know that I enthusiastically bleed Seahawk blue and green. If you were one of the 110 million+ people that watched the showdown between Seattle and New England, then you know the outcome came down to a call made in the final 30 seconds of the game.

In the last 2 minutes of regulation Seattle had marched down the field with a couple of clutch plays, including a miraculous catch by receiver Jermaine Kearse. As the game clock ticked away, the Seahawks found themselves just one yard shy of the end zone and down by four points; only a touchdown would suffice. With several chances to punch the ball across the line Seattle made a decision that could possibly haunt them for years. Instead of putting the ball in the hands of Marshawn Lynch, one of the fiercest running backs in the NFL, Seattle opted for a passing play. In a heartbreaking finish, the ball was intercepted by the Patriots and essentially the game was over.

As a devoted Seahawks fan I was devastated. The shocking end took my breath away, in the worst of ways. Though I woke up this morning still under a cloud, I began to think through the events of last night and the post game conferences. As a student of leadership culture, I understand that all great leaders falter in moments but their long term influence will always ensure the potential for future success. So, in the spirit of perpetual learning, here are a few leadership lessons that emerged from that drama that was Super Bowl XLIX.

1.) Great leaders aren’t defined by a bad call.
“If I could just go back and change that decision…,” says every single person who has ever made a choice with an unsavory result. After all, hindsight is 20/20 as they say. In the case of last night’s final offensive play call, the Seahawks should have run the ball. Okay, so that’s pretty obvious now. But had that pass been simply deflected and eaten precious seconds from the clock with two more playmaking opportunities, head coach Pete Carroll would have been called a genius for restricting the Patriot’s multiple Hail Mary attempts at the end of the game. All I’m saying is that there are many ways to dissect the events of last night, after the fact. Look at the end of the first half of that game. Pete Carroll and his coaching staff made a gutsy call to run a touchdown play instead of kicking a field goal and it worked brilliantly; they entered half time tied up. Great leaders take risks. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Great leaders should be given grace when they make bad calls from time to time. I’d rather celebrate the culture of gutsy competition that exists on the Seahawks team that has put them into the Super Bowl two years in a row. What separates the tiers of leadership from average to great is the ability to get back up from those mistakes and embrace the future with courage and optimism.

2.) Great leaders never blame others.
I heard Nicole Reyes, an exceptional leader and preacher (and my sister-in-law) in Los Angeles, once say to her team, “As your leader I will always give the credit to you when we succeed and I will always take the blame if there’s failure.”

In the fallout of failure, leaders rise to the surface and I can’t think of a sharper contrast than one found in the comments of Bruce Irvin and Russell Wilson. Bruce Irvin, the Seahawks outside linebacker, came into the spotlight last night by becoming the first player in Super Bowl history to be ejected from the game after an all out brawl in the final moments. In an emotionally charged postgame interview, Bruce Irvin apologized for his conduct but also publicly questioned his coaching staff and the play calling. And while I recognize that emotions were running high among every player on the team, team quarterback Russell Wilson had a different response. Instead of blaming the coaching staff for the decision that was made Wilson took responsibility for the intercepted throw and then looked to the future and affirmed his hope for next year.

3.) Great leaders show honor in every moment.
I think great leadership is cemented in the way leaders handle difficult moments publicly. Speaking to the previous point of blaming others, honor not only takes ownership of mistakes but simultaneously shows restraint by not degrading others in the process. Seattle’s head coach Pete Carroll answered one reporter’s questions directly after the game was over. Clearly downcast, Carroll took full ownership for the call that was made. He didn’t blame his offensive coordinator or Russell Wilson or anyone else on his team. Instead he commended everyone for their effort and teamwork through the course of the season and the final game.

It’s okay for leaders to have negative emotions and opinions about how a situation turns out; that’s being human. What’s not okay is rejecting responsibility, casting blame and turning that emotion toward others in a way that undermines their value. Mistakes will happen. Falling short is a part of leading people. But great leaders understand that the trust of their team is strengthened when they speak to an individual’s potential and exercise collective grace.

What other attributes of leadership did you notice from the outcome of yesterday’s game? Are there any principles that have guided you when moving forward from mistakes or failure?

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XLIX: How I found out the Seahawks were Super

One of the tensions of being a Pastor and an avid (borderline rabid) NFL fan comes down to a certain day of the week. A day which serves as an intersection between my passion, calling and responsibilities; one day a week that only presents a conflict in the months from September to February. That day is Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY! Football and chur, uhhh, I mean church and football. I wish I could say that I was 100% spiritual all the time and while I sit in church services I am always taking sermon notes on my iPhone on the front row and never checking football scores on the NFL app.

Now don’t get me wrong, I will never consistently choose a football game over my passion for building God’s house and His people. The local church far outweighs any other passion I may have. But there are moments where I do feel the pull of the pigskin. One of those moments came several weeks ago during the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and my beloved Seattle Seahawks.

What a game. For nearly 56 minutes, the Packers had dominated my team. Everyone had given up on them, myself included. There were more mistakes, interceptions and fumbles from our team in this one game than in the eight games leading up to this one. And while the rest of the world (and let’s be honest, most Seahawk fans) had figured this was the end of a great season, the only ones who hadn’t given up were the Seahawks themselves; and then suddenly it turned.

Comeback doesn’t even begin to describe what happened; miracle is more apropos. In three and half minutes, the Seattle offense came roaring back and forced Green Bay into overtime. It was at this point that my pastor hat came back on and I was forced (so dramatic) to leave my home, and my team’s future, behind as I jumped on a subway to make to our evening Union Square church service.

For 30 long minutes I sat on a subway car, underground, with no cellphone reception or access to the nail biting contest above. When I arrived at the Union Square station I knew the game would have already been over and so I started up the stairs with suspense. As I emerged from the station into the brisk, evening air I looked up to the most beautiful of sights: the Empire State Building boldly lit up in Seahawk blue and green. I threw my fist into the air and let out a shout of joy/relief! (Then snapped the above picture to treasure the moment forever.)

Despite their inconsistency for a majority of the football game, the Seahawks never threw in the towel. Even in Seattle, fans had exited the stadium with 5 minutes left in the game, only to kick themselves afterward upon hearing the swing in fortunes. Can you imagine the heartache to be a believer, walk out on your team and find out later that you missed out on the comeback?

As a leader, I wonder if you’ve ever been tempted to throw in the towel on people you’re leading. It’s easy to consider that option. Sometimes there are missteps and failures. Sometimes our team members drop the ball. Sometimes it feels like you have invested your life into someone and they come up short…again. I’ve been on both sides of the coin. There have been many times where I’ve made mistakes and costly errors but in the end I had people in my life that didn’t walk out on me with five minutes left in regulation. The ability to consistently believe in people and keep a short memory are critical to leaders who build leaders that go the distance. Learn how to focus on people’s potential. Teams/people that are encouraged regularly will often be inspired to go above and beyond.

Have you had people in your life that believed in you even in difficult times? How did you respond as a result of their influence?