A Leadership Lesson on Halloween

Photo: Arun Chittur (C) 2020

What were you doing last Saturday? Halloween 2020 … an excuse for many families to get out of the house (maybe) and roam the neighborhood, small costumed children leading the way in search of treats coated in chocolate, caramel, or just layers of pure sugar. As a father of young children, I was doing what anyone else in my community was doing–watching the Ohio State-Penn State football game, pushing the Buckeyes through telepathic energy to pad the lead in case James Franklin’s Nittany Lions found a second wind. The game was closer than it should’ve been, but that’s not why we’re here. I’m here to talk about Ryan Day’s press conference. The Buckeyes head coach answered reporters’ questions after the game, including one about his decision to throw on 4th-and-1. Twice.

“I needed a drink after that play,” Day said. “My heart was in my throat, I gotta tell ya.” On a scoring drive aimed to ‘seal the deal’ against Penn State, the Buckeye offense twice found themselves in a predicament. The first 4th-and-1 with a ways to go to the endzone, plus an irregular kicking performance from the normally steadfast Blake Haubeil who had complained of pain during pre-game. So what does Day call? Throw. And 1st down. The second happened on the 1-yard line, a key moment where any score could extend OSU’s lead. What does Day do? Throw. And into the endzone sails quarterback Justin Fields’ perfect shot. And that does it.

Coach Day talked about creating those plays, then training those plays. If they’re in the book and trained for just those moments, “You gotta call them in those moments. You’ve gotta trust it.” This is vintage Day. From the beginning of his tenure, he was deliberate ensuring his office and team spaces welcomed players. He engages them, teaches them, and when everyone’s eyes on are the Scarlet & Gray and the game’s on the line–he trusts them.

I think it’s important we don’t let this lesson pass us by. Forget about the game or the score. Yes I’m a Buckeye, but what I’m proudest of isn’t the win … it’s the way Day conducts himself, the way he leads the team, and how much he trusts his guys in the most critical of situations. I’ve observed too many leaders who espouse the value of trust and empowerment, yet reserve the most important actions and decisions for themselves. We all want to enable our teams to do better, to become leaders in their own right so they’re ready for those ‘big moments.’ Yet when the pressure mounts and the moment’s upon us, how many of us opt to do it ourselves or call the ‘safe play’ because we’re not willing to take the risk? I know it’s only a football game, but I also come from a world in the Air Force considered by many to be a “no-fail” mission. Yet when our crews and squadrons were at their best, it was because their commanders and supervisors empowered the youngest Airmen to the maximum extent. We trained relentlessly using the widest variety of scenarios and stimuli we could create. All because we knew the real-life situations our crews would face would be infinitely more complex and challenging than anything we could throw at them in a simulator. Ryan Day pushes his players hard, and expects them to consistently meet a very high standard of performance. Because he knows when game time arrives, the players have to be ready for anything. Our crews had to be ready for anything, and faced all manner of crises with confidence in units where the commanders were explicit: We’ve taught you, we’ve trained you, we trust you. Make the best decision you can and we’ll be behind you the entire way. This is leadership. This is a level of investment that every person on every team wants from their leader. And this is something, as leaders of teams large and small, we owe our teams every day of the week.

For bonus points, rewind the video back to 4:30: Quarterback Justin Fields took a tough shot and was sacked. The commentators naturally Fields’ presence of mind and whether he should’ve thrown the ball away. They talked about his not scrambling, the offensive line’s breakdown. Coach Day has a simpler response. “It was a mistake in coverage I could’ve helped from the sideline and I take the blame for that one.” Just like that. Then onto the next question. Leaders take responsibility when things go bad, then step into the shadows and away from the accolades when things go well.

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