“Two Guys with Great Athletic Ability …”

By Guy Higgins

I was watching the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers in one of the NFL playoff games over the weekend, and one of the announcers (some of whom can actually construct grammatically correct and meaningful sentences) said (talking about the two opposing quarterbacks), “There are two guys with great athletic ability.”

That immediately struck me as a silly thing to say.  They are professional athletes – arguably among the very best professional athletes in the country.  Of course they have great athletic ability.  That, however, is not why they are in the playoffs.  Those two men (and their counterparts on other playoff teams) are there because they have great intellectual ability in addition to their athletic abilities.  It isn’t good enough to be big and fast and strong and quick.  They have to be able to use those raw physical abilities with intelligence and with experience.

Professional football quarterbacks have to be able to take the snap from center and within a couple of seconds, see what is happening on the field, understand whether his teammates are executing the play the way the coach drew it up, see, analyze and understand what the defense is doing to make sure the play isn’t executed the way the coach drew it up, decide and act effectively – all, again, in one Mississippi, two Mississippi.

Effective leaders off the athletic field have to have that same intellectual ability, but they don’t have the advantage of being able to actually see the entire playing field and all the players.  Much of the action in the non-sports world takes place hidden from view, at least in real time, and some of it is always hidden.

That doesn’t mean that leaders don’t need to be able to make decisions and act.  Sometimes, leaders need to be able to make decisions in those couple of Mississippi’s I mentioned above.  Leaders need to recognize that they can be in different decision environments.  In this discussion, I’m going to focus on only two environments, business-as-usual, and business-as-unusual.

In business-as-usual, leaders have some time to collect information in order to “see the playing field” better.  They have time to analyze that information, consult with others for a diversity of perspective, build options and decide.  Leaders may have months to execute that cycle (collecting and analyzing information all the while), or they may have minutes, but they also have the advantage of experience in that domain – at least, that’s my assumption if they’re a leader making decisions.

The real challenge is in the business-as-unusual environment.  Specifically what I’m talking about here is when the world behaves badly, and your organization suffers some significant disruption – a fire, a flood, a pandemic illness, cyber attacks, etc.  In these cases, leaders are not likely to be operating in an environment where they have significant experience.  It’s a new environment, an environment in which much of the information is wrong or out of date, where life and safety may be at risk, and where there is little time for considered debate, dialog and decision making.

Further, this business-as-unusual environment is one in which intuition and “best practices” are not reliable guides.  So, how does a leader become more effective in the business-as-unusual environment?  Well, getting back to the big, handsome, athletic, smart, rich guys in the NFL (don’t you just hate them?), leaders can develop their decision making for the business-as-unusual environment through practice – just like Phillip Rivers and Peyton Manning have.

Leaders, at every level, need to have exercises (practices) scheduled and conducted – exercises that test their plans for responding to a serious disruption to business-as-usual (don’t have a plan – then your plan is to have a disaster – but we’ll post on that later).  These exercises should, ideally, be unannounced, be as realistic as possible and followed by an after action review (AAR) or hot wash to identify the lessons to be learned – then the lessons need to be incorporated into the plans and/or the leaders’ knowledge and then tested at some time in the future.

These exercises need to be frequent enough to enable leaders to develop the decision-making experience and skills that will be needed in a business-as-unusual environment – and the leaders must participate.  It does no good for the leader to delegate exercises to an assistant or deputy unless the assistant or deputy is going to be the decision maker during an actual disruption.  The starting team is the one that gets most of the practice – needs to be the same way in the non-sports world too.


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