Leadership Lessons from Nebraska Football

Writer’s note: I have already seen numerous wonderful leadership lessons from the first four games, and I suspect that will continue.  This article will probably become a running commentary on what I learned during the season. Stay tuned.

My husband is a Nebraska football fan. That might just be a serious understatement.  For our 40+ years together, he anxiously awaits fall, and sits glued to the television for each and every game (unless they are losing so badly that he can’t bear to watch.) He devours every article on every move, and dissects the plays weekly with his son, another FANatic.

Back in the day, Nebraska was the pinnacle of successful college football. Over the last couple decades, not so much. They have brought in coaches, fired coaches, changed strategies, poached players, but have never revived their glory days.

You need some context about this football team. Nebraska football is IT. It is THE place to be for anyone living in the state, past or present. The stands are a sea of red and have been sold out since 1962.  That’s 56 years!

So in 2017, they kicked out their old coach and hired Scott Frost. And the crowd went wild. Frost had just led the University of Central Florida to an overwhelming turnaround in a short three years, gaining attention on a national scale for a college that was barely a player.

You can just imagine the excitement for the 2018 season. A college football team with a proud and successful heritage has been struggling to regain their glory, and a new coach with ties to the team enters the picture.  He brought both coaches and players with him from the winning UCF team.  How could this be anything other than perfect?

Oh, did I mention that Frost was a winning Nebraska Quarterback during their national championship glory days, playing for legendary coach Tom Osborne?

(Bear with me…I’m just providing context for the leadership lessons)

I was a pro-football fan (Steelers in their glory days) and never did quite catch on to the Nebraska hype. That all changed when Scott Frost made his move. I got caught up in the excitement of possibly reliving the glory days.

I bought Nebraska shirts, I put the games on my Outlook calendar, and learned enough about the players to “talk football” with my husband.  We were psyched.

September 1, 2018: Clad in my new shirt, we turned on the big tv and surround sound to watch Nebraska trounce Akron…after all, who is Akron, really. The game was rained out.

September 8, 2018: Back in front of the tv. Young freshman quarterback played a good and promising game. They lost to Colorado, but their work on the field was promising. Unfortunately, the QB was injured, but hopefully okay.

September 15, 2018: This one is a breeze. Troy?  Who’s Troy? Okay, let’s go Nebraska. Nope the QB isn’t ready to play, but that’s okay – they’ve got this. Oh man, sacks, penalties and stuff that shouldn’t happen.  They lost to Troy.

September 22, 2018: We knew Michigan would be tough. But the QB was back, and if they didn’t win, at least they would play well.  Nope.  It was just about as bad as if a high school team was playing New England.

And, of course, the media pundits jumped on the “slam Nebraska and Scott Frost” bandwagon and pilloried every move they made in the four games, predicting a dismal season.

Here is my first leadership lesson: change is hard

There is no silver bullet. Change takes time, patience and hard work. Period. If, by chance, it appears that a silver bullet occurred, it was most likely serendipitous, and the stars just happened to align. It was not intentional.

It is not possible to effect major change in an organization without intentionality. Change in one place creates ripples. The ripples can easily destroy what was working.  That leads to confusion and chaos.

As we work with business clients, we are continuously reminded about just how difficult change can be.  Take software changes.  It’s just a different technology, right?

Nope, it is a challenge to an individual employee’s competence.  They know how to do their job now, and the change is making them do something different. They may not be as competent.  They may fail.

Take a change in leadership. It’s simple, right? The new leader arrives, talks to the team, gets them on board, and everyone moves forward together, right?

Nope. If the new leader is replacing a beloved leader, she will face unique challenges to everything she wants to do. If the new leader is replacing a poor leader, he will be put on a pedestal until he does something to fall off.

Add other variables: others on the team wanted the job, there are non-performers that are bringing down morale, the new leader is tasked with a major process change.  All this adds to the complexity facing the new leader and needs careful consideration and planning.

The silver bullet is a myth

The t-shirts worn this summer by Nebraska fans…”In Frost we trust,” said that they expected Frost to be a silver bullet.  He was going to fix everything and do it in the first game.

I’m pretty sure he’d have liked that to have happened.  He knew it would be tough, so he brought along those who believed in his coaching style – players and assistant coaches to support the change. He “got” the Nebraska culture; he was one of their own so that issue of cultural fit wasn’t a problem, right?

I saw the term “doomed” used to describe the 2018 Nebraska team by one of the media pundits. That’s unfortunate, but when you’re in the spotlight, it is yet another variable that must be handled.

I don’t think they’re doomed.  Why?  Because I have repeatedly heard Scott Frost, in post-game interviews say, “I know what direction we’re going.” He’s achieved turnaround before. I believe he can do it again because he seems to have a plan that has worked before, and he has confidence. However, time will tell.

Let’s see where this goes, shall we?

I already see lots of leadership lessons to explore…confidence as a leader, managing expectations, having the right people on the team, and staying the course to name a few.

They play Purdue Saturday at 3:30. I’m guessing I’ll have more to say after the game.

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