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Norm Bilsbury, Ph.D. | Champaign, IL

Depending upon when your fiscal started, you might be at the midway point for 2017 or wrapping it up. Hopefully this year’s quota is in the bag.
But if that little green arrow plotting the sales trends has failed to happily point “up and to the right”, is trending flat—or even worse—down, it might be a good time to reflect on key lessons learned from the New England Patriot’s Super Bowl 51 victory from last February. Why?

Consider that it might be one of the best examples of how a team overcame three consecutive quarters of trending negatively and still closed the gap to win what is arguably the greatest game ever. Translated into your world, this might mean they hit their number when no one else thought they could.

But before drawing out what can be learned from this, I need to first comply with principles of sound authorship and disclose bias. Know that doing so isn’t to deter you from reading, but rather to appeal to those of us who may not be able to totally relate to the football metaphor.

In full disclosure, I am a former cross-country runner writing about a football game. My ideal work-out wasn’t an insane clashing of helmets, but something much more sensible, like running in circles for endless intervals on a golf course all afternoon. Which of course, makes way more sense. (My apologies to those of you who chase whitey and consider this sacrilegious).

You now probably realize I am the last person qualified to proffer up a football game as a metaphor for business or life. But for the executive, manager, or sales person with an open mind, there is a lot to be gleaned from the Patriot’s world class execution and performance.

With the grace of an Olympic ice-skater, this team truly gelled as one in the final stretches of the world’s most tested arenas, and gave us a glorious example of what it means to stay in the fight, give your best, and never give in. Many sports writers concede it may have been one of the greatest Super bowl performances of all time.

When concessions like these are made by the pundits, we can’t afford to gloss over them as just another good time with friends and family. No. To do so would be sophomoric. There are lessons here for all of us. Even for the cross-country runners and non-football types. The learned will stop, reflect and consider.

An ancient King’s wisdom in 900 BC captured this dynamic when he appealed with a timeless quote from Hebrew literature. He taught us that wisdom itself appears in very common places, like the business marketplace. His actual words: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice;” Book of Proverbs (1:20--King Solomon).
Now to be fair, I doubt Solomon had the NFL’s Super Bowl in mind when he penned those words. But some of the world’s authorities on strategy believed that some of life’s most critical lessons were learned through athletics.

General Douglas MacArthur certainly fits the criteria as having a brilliant strategic mind, and he had this engraved over the gym at West Point, home of the U.S. Military Academy: “On the fields of friendly strife bear the fruits that on other days, and other fields, will bear the fruits of victory”.

With the likes of Solomon and MacArthur coaching us to be on the lookout for practical wisdom that is transferable to business and life, let us mine Super Bowl 51 for a practical lesson on Leading, Coaching, and Selling as you and your team past the mid-year mark, or begin to close out the 4th quarter.

And while an entire book could be dedicated on lessons learned through this game alone, I want to focus not so much on what has already been written about, but that which has only been discussed marginally: how Belichick and Brady first managed their inner game so that the team was free to perform.
But before we go there, let’s get back to your situation. Where is the sales arrow trending? Up, flat, down?
If your response falls into the latter two of these categories, one of the most important leadership lessons to be gleaned from both Belichick and Brady is to be cognizant of how each comported themselves in the face of tremendous adversity.

This is especially remarkable when we stop to consider that circumstances were escalating negatively, exponentially, and publicly. To review the quarter-by quarter-tally, the scoreboard read: Q1: Atlanta-0, Pats-0. Q2: Atlanta-21, Pats-3. Q3: Atlanta-28, Pats 3.

At the end of the 3rd quarter, Atlanta had 4 touchdowns while New England had zero. If you were watching it, you might remember thinking—“game is over, guess I’ll stop eating chips….”

Keep in mind this is the most viewed sporting event in the world. While the Pat’s scoring pattern was trending negatively, the world knew they were on a failing trajectory. For those of us living among the mortal, this is about the time that we might have asked for a onesie, popcorn, and a movie in the basement with Mom.

Not sure how you remember feeling at this point in the game toward the Patriot’s chances of winning. But I remember telling my kids that it was over. New England was going to lose.
But not Belichick, nor Brady. If I ever saw frustration their faces, it was never expressed in proportion to how things were progressing on the field. And it certainly wasn’t expressed personally toward any one individual. If anything, there existed a strained look of concentration and contemplation for sure, but neither of them were jumping on anyone’s case. Belichick wasn’t pulling Brady out of the game. Brady while intense, wasn’t going off on anyone.

And so, why are these observations of significance since everyone knows you don’t pull your star player out of the game?

In his new book, “The Sandler Rules for Sales Leaders, 49 Timeless Management Principles”, David Mattson reveals a partial answer for us in Rule # 14: Leaders need to continue to risk failure in order to achieve growth.

While intuitively we know this, we can’t forget to factor in how difficult it is to continue to take risks in the face of failure, when it is public, and when we are accountable. Can you insert yourself here?

Speaking practically, how many parents would let a six year-old continue to pour milk when s/he misses the glass not the first, the second, but a third time? I know I don’t. I freak after the second missed pour.

Fortunately for Patriot’s fans however, Belichick didn’t. He let Brady fail for 3 consecutive quarters. Repeatedly and publicly. And this was all to Belichick’s personal detriment as the coach, as the gap widened exponentially.

By not pulling Brady despite a negative performance trend, Belichick created a space for his leader that allowed something very wonderful to happen. The pendulum of momentum that had swung so high in the opposite direction and against New England, suddenly shifted.

This is where something very critical and pivotal occurred. Not having interviewed Brady, I don’t know this for a fact. But I have played on enough teams to know that when you play bad, you sit the bench. In Brady’s mind at some point, he came to realize that Belichick wasn’t going to pull him and put him on the bench for bad performance. Thus giving Tom the space he needed for change.

In Belichick’s wisdom and his own composure, he didn’t trip the fight or flight mechanism in the brain that puts people in a highly reactional mode. Instead he stayed on the other side of it, giving Brady breathing room. This mental and emotional space, combined within an unspoken message of: “You are the guy, and my guy no matter what” was undoubtedly empowering and the tipping point.

Research by Annie McKee and Richard Boyatzis shed some light on why Belichick’s demeanor toward Brady was the prime driver in positioning the team to win. Their article “Primal Leadership the Hidden Driver of Great Performance”, (Harvard Business Review, 2001), explains how Belichick & Brady managed the phenomena of mood contagion and made it work for the team, not against it. As leaders, it was their intentional and inner dispositions that ultimately cultivated an environment for the Patriot’s to comeback.

Mood contagion asserts that from a neurological standpoint an organization is inextricably connected much like an electrical circuit. That moods travel instantaneously and perpetually throughout an organization, positively or negatively, intended or not. Within this framework, a leader’s emotional state is the key determinant influencing all other circuitry.

After three quarters, Belichick knew the team was feeling tight. Wisely he recognized not to feed into the negative mental frenzy of a potential embarrassing loss. He knew he had to send the opposite message.

Had he pulled Brady, he most likely would have sent the message “I’ll pull anyone else who continues to play substandard” causing the team to tighten up even further.
When the leader’s moods are bad, negative, or critical, they can be felt even when someone isn’t physically present. Literally, if the home office isn’t happy it is felt across the lower 48 and beyond.

In the end, Belichick’s cool disposition empowered Brady toward a gutsy execution. New England scored 3 touchdowns, two conversions, and one field goal to tie in the 4th quarter. Then scored again in overtime to win. To say it was unbelievable is inadequate.

Now back to you, how do you mentally and emotionally comport yourself when you and/or a team member are behind the number or when the numbers are flat? Do you become emotional and intellectually inelastic? Or are you inwardly nimble, cultivating space for positive change? These questions are important for the rippling effect it will undoubtedly have across your organization. Here are the takeaways:

1. As a leader, make the decision that circumstances are not going to determine your mood. Be in touch with the circumstances and acknowledge them. But internally separate yourself. Lead from a place based on what you believe and want to achieve. Live from your vision.

2. Be aware that whatever you are feeling, the team will feel it too. The science behind mood contagion teaches this doesn’t happen in seconds, but in nano-seconds. Make sure the mood of the organization is managed to steer toward the vision, but in touch with reality.

3. Once you are confident you have the right people, don’t back off in your support of them. As Mattson espoused—this is where you as a leader must continue to risk failure to achieve growth. No doubt this was an uncomfortable place for Belichick. View personal discomfort as a validator of the fact that you are in the growth zone. Conversely, as mood contagion would suggest, if you are too comfortable, so are your people.

If we can keep these principles in mind, we create the emotional and intellectual space needed to create positive change in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Norm Bilsbury, Ph.D.,


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