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Leadership Lessons from the Field: 3 Key Lessons from a Stunning NFL Defeat

Opening day of the NFL season is one of my favorite days of the year. As a lifelong New Orleans Saints fan, I have been through the years of tremendous highs (a Super Bowl win!) and tremendous lows (losing seasons … Saints’ fans resorting to wearing bags over their heads.) When future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees retired last year, I was prepared for this season to be more of the latter. But this season’s opening game did not disappoint. My beloved Saints trounced the Green Bay Packers, 38 – 3! (Sorry, not sorry, Cheeseheads!) In what was supposed to be a blowout in the opposite direction, I found that game, regardless of whether you enjoy sports, to be a powerful example of leadership lessons that can apply to business teams

For Saints coach Sean Payton, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. A competition for quarterback in the offseason led to Jameis Winston being named the starter. Injuries to some key players in the preseason also set this game up to be a one-sided affair. Yet … the Saints dominated on the field. As a proud member of the Who Dat! Nation, it was amazing to see.

So, what happened? The Green Bay Packers were expected to be one of the top teams of the NFC, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers was coming off of one of his best seasons. Their defense was “supposed” to be one of the top five in the NFL.

Here are three key lessons from the game leaders can use as they reflect on their team’s performance:

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Play to Strengths. The New Orleans Saints team that walked on the field last Sunday is not the same team that played last year. Changes in key positions led to a reassessment of the strengths of each team member and a reorganization of their offensive and defensive schemes around those strengths. Sean Payton and his coaching staff did a remarkable job adjusting their entire game strategy around those strengths.

How often do we, as leaders, do that? When confronted with new or different team members, do we continue leading the same way we did in the past? This especially applies when coming off of successful projects/initiatives, where we think the same formula will work the same way this time. The Saints’ coaching staff recognized they had to change where needed or weren’t going to be successful. And the game plans that worked with Drew Brees as the quarterback was not going to work for this new offense.

Preparation. In his postgame interview, Jameis Winston cited preparation as the number 1 reason the Saints were so successful. He was spot on. Just compare New Orleans to Green Bay in their preparation. From the plays and how they were executed to how they worked as a team, it was clear that New Orleans had put more time into preparing for the game than Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay’s quarterback, did not participate in most of the preseason games, and it showed. Their execution and teamwork on the offensive side were poor and lackluster.

As a leader, preparing your team for potential challenges and adjustments is crucial. Rarely does execution go according to plan, and how your team responds to changes results from how well they are prepared. In Green Bay’s case, they appeared to have rested on their laurels from the previous season’s successes and become complacent. Even Rodgers commented after the game that the team just thought this was going to be a win, and therefore, didn’t have to put the same amount of effort in as they would have if it had been later in the season. The result-an unnecessary loss. For the Saints, a well-earned win.

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Adaptation with Agility. in today’s work environment, adaptation and agility are two key characteristics of team performance. Along with perseverance, they result in resiliency—the ability to take a punch and get up off the mat. There was a key moment in the first part of the game where New Orleans lost their starting center to an injury. Their right guard—who had played center in college—moved into the center position, and they brought another player off the bench to fill his guard position. For most teams, that would disrupt their rhythm and result in errors in execution or potentially even a turnover. But this game resulted in incredible lanes being opened for their running backs that tore through and dominated Green Bay’s defensive line. How well does your team quickly adapt to changes in a team member or the loss of key resources? By understanding their strengths and preparing them for various situations and responses, your team’s ability to adapt with agility becomes a fundamental strength. And to do it with less conflict and ego enables them to become resilient. And resilient teams overcome adversity to remain standing long after others have fallen.

For me personally, last Sunday’s game was one of the most enjoyable games I’ve watched (aside from the Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl win … I was there!) I love watching Sean Payton coach because he understands what teams need in today’s world: by observing their strengths, being open-minded in how he approaches a game, and being willing to take risks and learn quickly from those mistakes.

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I can’t predict whether the rest of the season will play out as well for New Orleans as the first week did, but I can’t wait to watch their next game and where this season takes them. That feeling of hope, when it is backed by a team that has a plan and the discipline to execute upon it, is something that we can build in our teams at work. The lesson here is that disruption can happen anytime, whether in sports or business. Better to be prepared, a Saint and a winner, than left to be stunned by the unexpected.