One day every year, the world comes together for a most bizarre ritual: Gathering around a television set with friends and family, indulging in massive quantities of snacks and beverages as they watch 22 grown men wear silly uniforms and engage in a series of highly technical maneuvers to move a little brown leather ball 300 feet in their appointed direction. Also, there are commercials – on any of the other 364 days, the same people would just impatiently DVR their way past them, but on this special day, they eagerly await these pieces of commercial art so they can talk about them with their friends and coworkers.
Among a lot of other adjectives, the Super Bowl is weird.
But even among the weirdness, there’s plenty we can learn about leadership from this annual ritual of football. Here’s the biggest one on my mind as we get ready for this year’s matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots:
Perception Is Reality
Image Credit: patriots.com
As the world prepares for the biggest sporting event of the year, all of the media attention this week has naturally been centered on two stories that have very little to do with the game. If you’ve been living blissfully ignorant of these stories, allow me to recap: The first story has been “Deflategate”, a controversy that has seen media and fans alike breathlessly discussing…air pressure. Of footballs. Yes, seriously. I wish that was a joke, and it’s been exactly as interesting as you would imagine. Last week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick held a press conference where he shared what he had learned about inflating footballs in order to defend his team against accusations that they intentionally cheated against the Indianapolis Colts. I am physically unable to write any more words about what he said because my brain might melt.
Image Credit: oregonlive.com
The second big story of the week has been the continuing refusal of star Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to engage in meaningful dialogue with the media. Leading up to the Super Bowl, players are contractually obligated to make themselves available to the media or face getting fined, so Lynch sat in front of the press pool for five minutes (timed on his cell phone) answering all questions with some variation of “I’m just here so I won’t get fined”. At the next media availability, he changed the line to “You know why I’m here”, but otherwise stuck to the same tactic. People have spent a lot of time talking about this story this week because it was sort of funny and sort of ridiculous and also because there weren’t any other football games being played this week.
What lesson about leadership could we possibly learn from this circus? Perception is reality. The actions that you take all have consequences, and those consequences will impact the way people perceive and react to you, even if they’re not fair or accurate.
Did the Patriots mean to cheat by deflating footballs? All objective evidence so far points to “Probably not”. But the same team lead by the same head coach was famously caught cheating by filming the call signs of another team during a game in 2007, an infraction which lead to over a half million dollars in fines and a permanent black mark on the credibility of the organization.
Were other teams using the same tactics at the same time? Most likely. Does one infraction seven years ago really make it more likely that the team was deflating footballs to gain a competitive edge now? You could argue both ways, but in the perception of the public, the answer is resoundingly yes. The actions taken by the team long ago are still impacting the way they are perceived today, and that perception has evolved into a reality where people are quick to label them as cheaters. It might not be objective, but perceptions often aren’t, even if the consequences of the perceptions are all too real.
For Marshawn Lynch, his refusal to talk to the media has resulted in some lost income, but more importantly a larger debate has erupted about the responsibilities of football players to engage with the public, especially when those responsibilities are written into their (very lucrative) contracts. Most people would probably agree that we should follow through with our obligations when we sign contracts, even when our job is running a football. Lynch’s refusal to do that has resulted in people labeling him everything from an “idiot” to a “thug”.
By all accounts from the people who know him best, he’s nothing of the sort on or off the field. But the public doesn’t form their perceptions by what he does working to better in the inner cities of Oakland or how he handles himself on the sidelines. They form their perceptions of him from the few times when he is forced to look into the cameras and say words, and those perceptions of course impact the reality of how people treat him.
Whether we want it to be true or not, when we are in positions of leadership, people watch our actions, create perceptions, and treat us based on those perceptions. Often those perceptions don’t capture the full reality of our actions or our intentions, but they exist nonetheless, and so do the resulting actions. It’s up to us to choose how to react to that treatment – we can take the route of Patriots coach Bill Belichick and do our best to manage our actions, knowing that actions far beyond our control can still sometimes cause headaches in our lives; or we can take the route of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and abandon any efforts to control the way others perceive us, instead concentrating on our own reality and happiness.
Both routes have their advantages and pitfalls, and neither is easy or perfect. This is perhaps one of the hardest truths about being in a position of leadership: by being out front, we put ourselves in a position to be judged, evaluated, criticized, praised, loved, and reviled, but even when others put us under the spotlights, we’re all just humans doing our best. That’s true whether we’re talking about you, me, or the stars of the Super Bowl. We would probably live in a happier world if we remembered this the next time we formed and acted upon our own perceptions.