Steel Curtain

MH3 —  January 24, 2017

The curtain came down quickly and ferociously on my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night. Unfortunately, the Black & Yellow have badly tarnished their infamous reputation of having a ferocious Steel Curtain defence for much of the past forty years. Sunday, it looked like a shower curtain.

In a world where we often make far too many comparisons between sports and business, this unhappy fan needs to drag you through one more analogy therapy session. It’s because I can’t really understand what happened when I evaluate the loss through my sports-loving eyes. The fan in me actually thought we were going to win, by ten points no less!

So the business thinker in me needs to take over. I heard a question on ESPN Radio this morning that resonated. Why don’t more teams copy what the New England Patriots have done for the past two decades? How come they alone are re-writing the record books at a furious pace? How come the most hated sixth-round draft pick ever has the chance to be one of the most successful QBs in history? (Please don’t name him the most successful QB of all time because of the potential for five Super Bowl wins. Bart Starr won five NFL titles and Otto Graham won seven professional football titles.) But win, lose or draw Super Bowl LI, the Pats are still amazing for what they have accomplished.

To provide you with the most objective comparison I can, I am going to evaluate the success of the Pats organization with that of my Steelers from one moment in time. Sunday Night. It will be a debilitating exercise for me but one from which I think I can provide myself with daily reminders about what it takes to be successful. And, of course, because I love threes. Mh3 is going to serve this up in three digestible courses.

Purpose

I didn’t know whether to label this one pain or purpose. My Steelers looked disinterested from winning the game until the end. I could have also named this one passion. Passion, for me, is the most powerful word in business. It’s the one trait that can overcome all other shortcomings in a candidate or within a culture. If you are talented and also passionate than you are going to be a star. If your organization is loaded with talent and passion, watch out for competition. So why did I use the word purpose? Why did I consider the word pain? Because I think that the Pats have been playing with a purpose all season, caused by immense and unjust pain that is fuelling their passion. All of this can be accredited to one man, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who spent two years chasing down Tom Brady to punish him for Deflategate. The Pats shouldn’t be mad at the commissioner, the rest of the league should be. He has fuelled their already mighty fire and increased it to torch mode. This team is on a mission from Goodell to win that Lombardi Trophy and make him say nice things about them post-game in Houston. Want to get yourself fired up? Want to get your organization fired up? I am convinced that pain, desperation and anguish will always bring out the strongest character in human beings, much more than the pursuit of happiness. Scientifically, I challenge you to examine the origins of the best songs, the innovations created during wars and the philosophy produced by depravation. Pain creates purpose. Add a little, or a lot, to your next planning meeting and watch the idea fireworks explode!

Preparation

Did you hear the joke about the NFL team who had full contact practices the week of their conference championship game? If this was 1987 or 1967 that would be no joke. But in 2017? It is true. The New England Patriots had full pad, tackle to the ground practices leading up to the championship game. This team’s preparation has been legendary for years. If you haven’t read the story about them practicing against Seattle’s goal line pass (remember the Super Bowl interception?) in the pre-season that year, you must! But it’s true. The Pats staff was so upset about fumbles and missed tackles in their previous playoff game, they moved aside the tackling dummies and pylons, and told their stars to go at it. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers were learning how to use Facebook, holding pep rallies and planning their wardrobe for Houston. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating but preparation is the key to anything. If you want to have a great meeting with your boss, prepare! Think about what questions they will ask you. Try to understand what challenges are on their plate for the week. Technology is amazing but it still cannot make up for old fashioned blood, sweat and more sweat if you want to win a piece of new business, sign a new sponsor, get that internship or out hustle the other guy or gal.  If you watched this game you felt like the Steelers had never even heard of Chris Hogan. Otherwise, they may have come within 15 yards of him at some point. The Steelers didn’t prepare hard enough. This in’t just a coaching issue. Everything you read from the Pats locker room is that the team prepares so incredibly well because their leader on the field (Tommy Brady) works so hard. In your organization, who is that de facto on-field leader who raises the bar for everybody else? Neither motivational speeches or butt kickings can match the powerful presence of a standard bearer. Every organization needs one. Who is your Tom Brady?

Poise

New England came out at the beginning of the first and third quarters smacking the Steelers right in the mouth. It took the life out of the Steelers. You could see it on the sidelines. You could see it in the eyes of the coaches. You could see it in the eyes of the players. The result was a Steelers team that lost their confidence, completely abandoned their mojo and played without poise. At the end of the first half they decided not to use their timeouts, happy to escape down “only” 17-9. What? You are in a championship game! Every possession, every yard, every point is huge, yet the coaches decided to run and hide. In business, we all face adversity. That isn’t the cause of problems. Problems start when you lose your poise. When you doubt yourself, your capabilities, your organization, your team. No business, organization, charity, government or community group has many days on the calendar where challenges aren’t flooding in. Building your ship to withstand the worst challenges is the best organizational design theory in the world. As a leader, it is even more important for you to keep your poise because the world is watching. I love Mike Tomlin, because he is my team’s coach. But I can’t say i loved how he withered in the looming shadow of Bill Belichick’s hoody.

I know these ramblings may make little sense to you, but they will help me swallow my pride and watch the Super Bowl. More importantly, they validate to me that sport imitates life and there can be something to be learned from any disappointment. Even a slip in the shower with the mouldy curtain providing your only defence!