The NFL School of Leadership

Why a book about a football team is a modern-day classic about organizational management.

Some game last night, huh?

Actually, I’m the wrong person to talk about it. I’m more of a baseball fan, and I’m also one of those people who’s been troubled by reports on the long-term effects of football on its players. But I didn’t want the Super Bowl to fade into memory without praising a recent book about football that’s one of the most engaging and surprising books about management I’ve read.

Most NFL games boiled down to four to six crucial plays that either went your way or didn’t.

The book is Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers, and it’s a close study of one NFL team, the New York Jets, across the 2011 season, from pre-draft prep work to cleanup after a mediocre 8-8 run. Dawidoff gained remarkable access to the team, particularly the coaching staff led by Rex Ryan—who, like many leaders, has deep reserves of confidence but received daily reminders that practically nothing he’s sketched out will go as planned.

TV football commentators like to present the game as the highly polished product of fierce athleticism and rigorous coaching. Dawidoff suggests that’s true only to an extent; the game on the field is much messier, and success is more subject to randomness than fans seduced by heroic narratives would like to admit. “Most NFL games boiled down to four to six crucial plays that either went your way or didn’t,” Dawidoff writes. So much of the work a football team does—drills upon drills, film upon film—is meant to give itself some shred of advantage in those particular moments. And only on very rare occasions does a thoroughly prepared play go right.

So Ryan naming his defensive scheme Organized Chaos was a bit of real talk: “He wanted a defense that was imaginative enough to take the initiative and yet tough enough to break your face.” Even if your association isn’t in the business of face-breaking, you can likely appreciate how difficult Ryan made things for himself with a strategy designed to make teammates at once supremely flexible yet rigorously focused.

There’s another serious problem: A football team is an inherently siloed organization. There are offensive and defensive sides, each with its own set of coaches and personalities. (Plus a third silo, effectively in Siberia, called special teams.) The broad theme of Collision Low Crossers is Ryan’s effort to effectively manage both silos so that everybody within them is focused, integrated, and feels respected.

Add to that the fact that your team’s makeup substantially changes from year to year, and the “chaos” side of the ledger gets a lot more full. So, how’d Ryan do? That 8-8 record is one answer to that question. Ryan came from a defensive background, and he was often in conflict with his fellow coaches on both sides. Dawidoff writes that the Jets’ defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, “was a paragon of preparation, whereas Ryan’s nature hewed more toward the Napoleon dictum on s’engage et puis on voit. (You enter the fray and then you see what to do.)”

The results weren’t always disastrous, but the conflicts were often frustrating for everybody involved. Davidoff spent enough time hovering over the proceedings to see some of the cracks in Ryan’s leadership style: “[H]e would need more directive clarity, had to tell people what his wishes were and then hold them to them, and himself, to it.”

As with the sidelines, so with the corner office. Dawidoff is a compassionate observer, and he got close enough to the Jets that he was allowed to select a play during one preseason game. (It didn’t go well.) But he’s not in the tank for the team, and I wish there were more books in which a writer objectively observes what really happens in an organization in real time; so much business literature is either written by CEOs singing their own praises or after-the-fact case studies that tend to avoid the messier parts of management. Collision Low Crossers isn’t so much a “football book” as a portrait of the hard work of leadership, and how what challenges your leadership isn’t always what you expect.

If a journalist dropped into your office for a year to watch you and your staff, what would he or she see? Share your thoughts in the comments.

(Little, Brown and Company press photo)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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