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Leadership Lessons from the Super Bowl

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Sam Payton; Super Bowl“I wasn’t worried. I was terrified.” So said New Orleans Saints kicker Thomas Morstead about the moments leading up to the onside kick he took to start the second half of last Sunday’s Super Bowl game. And if he was terrified, one can only imagine how Saints coach Sam Payton felt. Having called the play, he’s the one that had most to lose—professionally speaking—if it didn’t go exactly according to plan.

While the worlds of on field sports action and the day-to-day grind of business life don’t often have a lot of common factors, what Payton went through in calling the crucial play is something that anyone in a decision-making role can learn from.

As we know by now, of course, the kick went exactly as Payton and the Saints hoped it would, turning out to be the defining play of the game. At such times, it can seem that it was destined to be so—that no other outcome was possible. The reality, however, is that what occurred on the night was merely the coming together of a series of factors—many of which have equivalents beyond the football field.


It’s no secret that modern-day football is a game grounded in meticulous preparation. Indeed, the amount of statistical analysis would put many a business to shame, as would the levels of practice required from players—under the watchful eye of a management team committed to excellence—to ensure that their performance levels are as close to optimal as possible.

Self belief

Let’s not forget that calling the play was no split second decision for Payton. It came at the second half kickoff, following a break in the action of around 45 minutes—ample time to quail in the face of pressure. While the rest of the country was watching the Who play their greatest hits medley, Sam Payton was wrestling with whether or not to follow the status quo or his own instincts. At stake: his reputation and his team’s chances of staging a comeback. Under similar circumstances, maybe 99 percent of coaches would have opted for a safer kick-off—a decision no one could possibly blame you for. The decision not to listen to the voices—whether inner or those of colleagues expressing doubt—advocating for the easy, trusted path was what allowed everything else to follow. While typical stakes in business tend not to be as high—or as visibly deconstructed—being fully committed to your own decisions is the only way to get members of your team to believe in them enough to execute them effectively.


Watching a replay of the events from the game, it’s clear that every single member of the Saints team that took the field for the second half knew exactly what their given role at that moment was. How many of us can raise a hand and say that of people in our own organizations—or even of ourselves, at times? Effective communication is the key to letting people know exactly what is expected of them. If they see confusion and indecision, that will be magnified throughout an organization. If, however, an organization’s goals are communicated clearly and effectively, the chances of them being executed are significantly higher.

Long-term results are everything

Had the onside kick turned out successfully but the Saints gone on to lose, the chances are that it would already have been forgotten; no-one much cares about the single successful decision in a losing campaign. As such, Payton’s half-time decision is only important in terms of the wider narrative. While there’s no such thing as a Super Bowl for business, the wider narrative at stake for most of us is the ongoing success and health of our companies.

Making one good decision and resting on your laurels isn’t going to help anyone.

Making a good decision and following up with consistent execution of everything else that you do well, however—the pattern the Saints followed—is the stuff great teams, and companies, are made of.


Written by Phil Stott

February 10, 2010 at 10:37 am

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