Sally Jenkins: “Leadership is earned, not granted. The source of true power is buy-in.”

From a Washington Post column by Sally Jenkins headlined “John Harbaugh gets what Urban Meyer missed: Leadership is earned, not granted”:

So many coaches misapprehend the nature of real authority. The fact is, a team can destroy any leader. People have to grant you their cooperation for any idea to work, no matter how brilliant you are, and if they distrust your intentions, if they find you unworthy or not genuine, they will frag you, as Urban Meyer discovered. On the other hand, look at how the Baltimore Ravens are sustaining John Harbaugh. Now there is a coach with authority.

As the NFL season draws to a close, there will be the inevitable round of coaches fired and new ones hired. And some teams will make the same misjudgment organizations have made from “Mutiny on the Bounty” to the Jacksonville Jaguars: They will mistake an autocratic voice for a leaderly one.

Anyone who aspires to the NFL’s upper echelon ought to listen to the mic’d-up Harbaugh talking with his team in the closing minutes of that excruciating one-point loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The nature of leadership is an endlessly fascinating subject, and it’s not easy to identify, but you know it when you hear it, and you heard it in Harbaugh as he discussed the most crucial call of the game, with his team trailing 31-30. Here’s the thing you notice: Harbaugh didn’t tell his players anything; he asked them.

“We want to kick it or go for it? What do you all think?” he asked undrafted backup quarterback Tyler Huntley and the rest of that hard-working crew. Did they want to play for the win or for overtime, go for two or kick the extra point?

“What you want?” he asked again. “What does everybody … want to try it?”

“Go for two,” Huntley said. “Let’s win, Coach.”

“All right,” Harbaugh said. “Let’s try it.”

So they tried it — and for the second time in three games, they lost by a point. Harbaugh then stood up and shouldered all the blame and criticism for gambling. But here’s the thing: Ever seen a team play with more valiance and cohesion in the face of tough circumstances than the Ravens over the past month? They entered Sunday with nine players designated as injured, including starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has missed three games because of an illness and then a lingering sprained ankle. Yet Harbaugh somehow has kept them viable into the fourth quarter every week….

The tenor on the Ravens is a fascinating contrast to what has leached out of Jacksonville about Meyer’s imperious regime and his swift undoing amid reports that he labeled coaches “losers” and his players “dips—s.”

Anyone who aspires to lead should look at those examples and think about the source of power. There may be no concept more misunderstood, misconstrued or misapplied by poor leaders. Scores of failed would-be overseers interpret power as something imposed on others from the top down, with assertiveness or spittle-flying harangue — only to find out they have lost the room and then their jobs.

The source of true power is buy-in. Just listen to a few of the real greats talk about it. Is there a more powerful or effective leader in all of sports right now than Steve Kerr, with the way his Golden State Warriors are hunting a fourth NBA title under him? Yet here is how Kerr answered when I asked him last year about his decision process with his players.

“A coach has to have the humility to ask for their input and the awareness that not every decision is going to pay off, right?” Kerr answered. “That’s what makes decisions hard — that there is no easy answer. There are two angles to this: number one, the angle of how are my staff and I going to come up with a decision to a problem or an issue, and number two, how are we going to include the team. How is the team going to accept it? And those are equally as important.”

Perhaps no sport has been so beset by abusive tyrants as women’s soccer. Yet name a bigger winner in the field than the reticent Jill Ellis, victor of repeat World Cups in 2015 and 2019 with a record of 13-0-1. Ellis was no patsy and not all players loved her, but she managed to blend a roster full of massive personalities — partly because she was occasionally willing to ask Megan Rapinoe which set piece she wanted to run.

“As a young coach, I was more demanding and wanted to do things my way, a pusher,” Ellis told me shortly after the 2019 victory. “As I got older and smarter, I realized collaboration is a better vehicle for maximizing. You have to create an environment where they feel part of the process.”

Let’s change fields completely. Bob Iger was hardly a front-runner to become a powerful boss at Disney; he was viewed as a “loyal drone” by one critic. So how did he become renowned as the titan “who transformed not only Disney but all of Hollywood?” as the Los Angeles Times asked. The answer lay partly in his “knack for forging trust with business partners,” the Times decided, in a story on how underrated he was as a CEO. Ask Iger about the keys to his strong leadership, and he responds that he wanted his version of Disney to be a place where “you expect people’s best but give them the ability to make honest mistakes without being penalized” and an environment that is “not political in nature, that is hospitable.”

Yet NFL teams, more than most businesses, seem to fall into the trap of mistaking the hospitable leader as somehow weak. Seemingly strong-willed coaches implode and send their organizations into death spirals, but a less assuming character succeeds because elite NFLers really want what we all do from a boss: someone who has expertise, is industrious and accountable, and works well with others in the room. The longest-tenured coaches in the NFL aren’t the autocrats or the spit-screamers. Andy Reid almost never raises his voice. Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, Pete Carroll, Sean Payton — each has an interesting self-effacement and a marked knack for creating loyal staffs.

Matt Patricia surely knows his craft as a longtime acolyte of Belichick and defensive coordinator for the Patriots. But the Detroit Lions ran him out the door in less than three seasons after a series of terrible performances. Why? Partly because he insulted and demeaned his locker room leaders, which Bleacher Report documented in a story headlined “When the Patriot Way Goes Wrong.” As safety Glover Quin said at the time, “When you are cursing me like I am a little boy — hold on, bro, you don’t have to talk to me like that to get your point across. We are partners; we are working together.”

Patricia, like Meyer, encountered what renowned cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm would term a “leveling mechanism.” Boehm, the former director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California, explains eloquently in a piece titled “Political Primates” that followers subtly rule hierarchies, as more than one autocrat has learned.

Pyramid-shaped organizations tend to be constructs. According to Boehm, we devised them early in human history — not to promote tyrants but for the sake of efficiency: Someone had to organize and lead the hunt. When leaders abuse that grant of authority and become “self-aggrandizing political upstarts,” as Boehm puts it, groups can have brutal ways of dealing with them, leveling mechanisms that range from ostracism and shaming to even execution.

“In effect these egalitarian bands did something very special about the problem of power,” Boehm writes. “They arrived at a largely implicit ‘social contract,’ by which each political actor conceded his personal pursuit of dominance.”

So often modern leadership is mistaken as the personal pursuit of dominance, making misery out of enterprises and true collaboration rare. But modern leaders do well to realize that leveling mechanisms still exist, if in subtler form. When you alienate a team, it will deny you its energy and cooperation, and it can even render you unemployable, such as Meyer.

Miami Heat President Pat Riley wrote about the leveling dynamic in his autobiography: “This is what happens whenever people on a team decide not to trust,” he observed. “Everyone will gear down their effort until they’re doing just enough to get by.”

But the opposite happens when the leader is a genuine collaborator. Teammates gear up. One of the more remarkable risings in the NFL appears to be happening under Dan Campbell, who took over the Lions this season after several years as Payton’s assistant head coach in New Orleans. The Lions became viscerally more competitive each week under Campbell even as they started 0-10-1, and they have won two of their past three with upsets of the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals. Any NFL aspirant should go back and listen to Campbell’s remarkable opening statement at his introductory news conference.

“Compatibility is important,” Campbell said. “It’s highly important. It doesn’t matter — you can put the best coaches in the room, and if they’re all a bunch of alphas and they’re trying to eat each other alive, you’re never going to get anything done. … It’s a collaborative effort; it’s give-and-take. But, listen, it’s been proven to work.”

It works because the very best coaches don’t tell people what to do. They ask them what they want to do together.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. She began her second stint at The Washington Post in 2000 after spending the previous decade working as a book author and as a magazine writer.

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