Leading an Upstart Victory: Fateful Decisions That Carried a Mid-Ranking American Football Team to a National Championship

By Jeffrey Klein and Michael Useem

One of the most momentous decisions is picking the right person to lead the team all the way to the top. For Philadelphia Eagles, it took them two leaders before they could find the right coach and three leadership decisions that carried the team to victory.

 

One of America’s best professional football teams, the New England Patriots, was ahead 33 v. 32 points with 9:22 minutes remaining in the 52nd Super Bowl, the annual championship game on February 4, 2018.  Favored to win by 4.5 points, the Patriots had already triumphed in the Super Bowl in 2017, 2015, 2005, 2004, and 2002.  And for this latest contest, its quarterback, the league’s most legendary player, had been on a roll, already throwing the football 505 yards, the most ever in this game of games. 

But the opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, with more losses than wins in its prior two football seasons, and a backup quarterback on the field, would add 10 unanswered points in the game’s final nine minutes.  It was an upset that would inspire football fans nationwide who savored the improbable.   

Though U.S.-style football is less familiar to international readers, the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and the decisions behind it offers instructive insight into how any upstart organization can vanquish a powerhouse.  We have had direct access to the company’s owner, coach, and players, and we asked them to identify the most fateful decisions behind the championship.  We focused on what McKinsey has termed the “big bets” – those far-reaching and sharp-edged actions that organizations take from time to time that can derail a firm if made poorly but boost success if done right.1

We found three leadership decisions by the owner and his staff that carried the Eagles to victory.  Taken together, they can be seen as a tangible template for the leadership decisions of nearly any underdog seeking to displace a confident if not dominant incumbent.  Business parallels come to mind with Netflix’s triumph over Blockbuster and Amazon over Borders in the U.S., and Alibaba over eBay and Didi over Uber in China. 

 

Decision 1: Connecting the Talent

Finding the right coach is of course one of any team’s most consequential choices. Company owners and governing boards consistently confirm that one of their most momentous decisions is picking a new chief executive.  Nothing new here, but what is striking and informative in this instance is the pick’s evolving criteria. 

The Eagles’ owner and his lieutenants had long sought a head coach who could bring out the summative performance of all the players, a decision premised on the axiom that the best individual players are not necessarily the best aggregate producers unless they are somehow united for doing so.  In the executives’ minds, the Eagles ought to be far more than just a sum of its parts, and that extended to non-players as well.  If the organization could better sync its players and staffers around shared purpose, the players should be more able to move the ball when it really mattered, say with nine minutes to go in the championship game. 

From our interviews with the Eagles’ principals, we learned that their search for a head coach who could create that kind of connectedness among the players had started with Andy Reid.  He came in 1999 with a promising resume, having served as a sub-coach for a Green Bay Packers team that had finished its 1998 season with 11 wins over 5 losses.  And he delivered in Philadelphia, with a win rate of 58 percent and taking his team to four conference championship games.  But while Reid had upped the Eagles winning rate through greater player connectedness, he fell short in earning a Super Bowl Championship, and the owner decided to make a change.

The Eagles cast a wide net, interviewing more than a dozen candidates and finally hiring Chip Kelly for his innovative approach to the game.  Kelly too brought a promising resume, having just taken the University of Oregon to great success.  While inclusiveness was not Kelly’s strong suit, the owner and his lieutenants believed that between Reid’s legacy and their own backing of the operating principle, they would be able sustain the team’s inclusiveness.   

But Kelly’s arms-length approach proved too much.  While tactically innovative, his overall philosophy didn’t mesh with the inclusive culture that the team had worked incessantly to create over the previous 14 seasons with Andy Reid. Kelly brought in a chief of staff, for instance, who in the eyes of senior managers proved too self-absorbed, but Kelly thwarted calls for his replacement, insisting on retaining authority over all personnel matters.  “As long as I win on the field,” Kelly explained, “that’s what counts.” 

They craved a coach, came the response, who could personally connect with them both on and off the field, a person who could talk with them, inform them, listen to them, and not mislead them.

Kelly would control the game, deciding which new players to recruit and which staffers to retain. He remade the roster and he even reformed the executive suite, forcing the head of football operations out of office.  It became evident to the owner and his deputies that Kelly’s un-inclusiveness was getting in the way of his playmaking, and Lurie dismissed him in a fashion intended to signal a strategic redirection to both the players and the market. Most head-coach firings come after the season’s final game, but Philadelphia moved Kelly out a week before the final game in 2015.  Lurie explained the dismissal directly to the players, and then, displaying a tenet of the culture, he asked them what they wanted in a replacement. They craved a coach, came the response, who could personally connect with them both on and off the field, a person who could talk with them, inform them, listen to them, and not mislead them.

Eagles management chose a still different path in replacing Kelly as head coach, stressing one criterion as they narrowed the prospects. Management wanted a coach who would connect the players, “bringing the building back together” in the words of one executive, not a coach who would insist on “my way or the highway.” 

Owner Jeffrey Lurie and his lieutenants recruited Doug Pederson, a former Eagles quarterback himself and then on the coaching staff for Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs. Brought onto the staff for the 2016 season, Pederson pressed Eagles players to take greater hold, openly explaining his lineup decisions and encouraging their counsel on them. “What do you want your team to look like?” he asked them.  New assignments went for review before anybody was moved. “It’s not about me,” Pederson pleaded. “You’re the ones who play.” 

Though slow to take hold at first, the connected mindset gained traction as skepticism receded – “taking off” in Pederson’s words – by his second season. Pederson found, as intended, that his players began to coach one another. They displayed the sense of connectedness that he had challenged them to embrace, driven in part because of his own ability to connect with them. “Doug sparked buy-in through his level of empathy for players,” said Shaun Huls, director of high performance for the Eagles. “He was constantly reminding players, ‘I understand how you feel.’”

In the owner’s view, dominance and reticence would have to give way to two-way discourse. We “don’t want 53 leaders or 53 followers” on the team, he said, but rather a “strong mix of leaders and followers.” The coach informed players more frequently and consulted more widely.

Connecting the talent among the players and staffers thus proved one of the organization’s most providential decisions in the view of those who took part in them. By engaging, consulting, and empowering all those on payroll, the owner and his senior staff in turn received guidance and commitment up from them, a direct product of the ironic principle of reciprocity: in giving more away, we receive more in return.

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About the Authors

Jeffrey Klein is the Executive Director of the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program at The Wharton School and a Lecturer at Wharton and the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. As Executive Director, Jeff leads the team that designs and delivers Wharton’s portfolio of curricular and co-curricular leadership development initiatives for undergraduate, MBA, and executive audiences. He is the co-host of Leadership in Action on Sirius/XM Business Radio powered by The Wharton School (Channel 132), and chairs the Steering Committee for the Penn’s Lipman Family Prize, an annual award of $250,000 celebrating and supporting leadership and impact in social sector organizations. Jeff also serves as the Academic Director for the newly-launched Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy. Finally, he works extensively with managers and executives, and serves as the Executive Director of the Advanced Management Program, Wharton’s flagship 5-week program for senior executives.

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Faculty Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management and McNulty Leadership Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. His teaching includes MBA and executive-MBA courses on management and leadership, and he offers programs on leadership and governance for managers in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.  He works on leadership development with organizations in the private, public and non-profit sectors. He is author of The Leader’s Checklist, The Leadership Moment, Executive Defense, Investor Capitalism, Leading Up, and The Go Point. He is also co-editor of Learning from Catastrophes; co-author of The India Way, Leadership Dispatches, Boards That Lead, and The Strategic Leader’s Roadmap; and co-author of Fortune Makers: The Leaders Creating China’s Great Global Companies (2017), Go Long: Why Long-Term Thinking Is Your Best Short-Term Strategy (2018), and Mastering Catastrophic Risk: How Companies Are Coping with Disruption (2018).

References
1. André Bordeur, Kevin Buehler, Michael Patsalos-Fox, and Martin Pergler, “A Board Perspective on Enterprise Risk Management,” McKinsey Quarterly, 2010, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/dotcom/client_service/risk/working%20papers/18_a_board_perspective_on_enterprise_risk_management.ashx.
2. Jeff Diamond, “Eagles GM Howie Roseman Goes from Hot Seat to Catbird Seat in Less than One Year” Sporting News, November 15, 2017; http://www.sportingnews.com/nfl/news/philadelphia-eagles – general – manager – gm – howie – roseman – carson-wentz-super-bowl/vst7d1utrg0u1m8o00dtn9h4f.

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