I will admit there are some good lessons that football can teach us.
As millions of people across the nation prepare to overeat turkey and pie this weekend and settle in to watch some good ol’ American football, I find myself once again an outcast. I’ll be listening to some Diana Krall and looking online for Black Friday deals. This time of the year I often feel compelled to rant against the football addiction our country suffers from (my old blog post “Why I hate football” attracts a lot of readers in the fall months), but after reading about coach Kevin Kelley last week, I have to give him a nod – he is an excellent example of an Evolutionary leader.
Kevin Kelley is the coach for Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, and he’s been getting a lot of attention lately because he has a policy to never punt. He almost always onside kicks. In the recent article “The Coach Who Never Punts”, Grandland Channel explains that Kelley has “managed something arguably revolutionary: He’s caused us to question the way the game is played.”
Check out the video:
Coach Kelley’s is a Moneyball story. His decision not to punt is data-driven rather than based in coaching lore passed down over the ages. Kelley’s data is pretty mind-blowing. And lots of experts agree with him: Economics Professor David Romer from University of California Berkeley’s study proves Kelley’s right, as does NFL statistician Brian Burke’s data analysis. In fact, the vast majority of experts and fans agree that Kelley’s strategy makes good sense.
So why isn’t everyone doing it?
Because they are afraid.
In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership, we note the innovative and “future-oriented” way that Evolutionary leaders think – and the propensity for this sort of thinking to be criticized when it’s put into practice. Evolutionary leaders often fail to recognize the threatening quality of even the most positive idea. Trying something new means making a change – and we are hardwired to avoid change. This is because change, even good change, involves a risk—and we are hardwired to avoid risk.
As it turns out, while the data might back up Coach Kelley’s policy to never punt, the reality is that football analysts, commentators and fans are quick to criticize coaches when they don’t choose to punt. Well-known NFL and College coaches such as Mike Smith, Bill Belichick, and Rocky Long have all faced the media onslaught – often for even thinking about not punting. Age-old football practices, and the impulse to “make the game interesting” are much more powerful drivers of coaching behavior than the irrefutable evidence that data provides. Coach Kelley might be right, but his no-punt policy is boring. And that’s a cardinal sin in the game of football.
Coach Kelley is winning state championships with his strategy to never punt because he employs the strategy consistently, even at the risk of being lambasted by fans and media. He’s willing to defy decades of conventional wisdom and public opinion in favor of facts and data. He’s following a philosophy that all Evolutionary leaders share: If it’s tough, it’s probably the right thing to do. By adopting this sort of resolute approach, willingness to take hits and risks, and to abandon old “rules” in the pursuit of excellence – Coach Kelley just might be a game-changer.