Love, Leadership and the New York Giants

In an interview after the Super Bowl, New York Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin reflected on his team’s remarkable success.  Coughlin’s secret for brining out the best in his players was simple: he told them he loved them.

According to the New York Post, Coughlin recalled his speech to his players the night before the game, saying:

“This is a very special team, and it was appropriate at this point in time to let them know how I felt about them…. So they didn’t have any question in their mind that I deeply appreciated what they accomplished, where they’ve come from the fact they’ve done it together, and I wanted them to know it. I wasn’t afraid. I told them, ‘I’m man enough to tell you I love you.’”

Love? That’s not the sort of thing you normally hear from a coach, or many other leaders for that matter.  But it shows how harnessing deep emotion can motivate and inspire a team.

That runs counter to the way most people think about leadership.  It’s widely believed that leaders must rely on rational arguments to succeed, holding their emotions in check or spooning them out in measured doses.  Surface emotions, like humor, are fine to display, but not deep emotions, and certainly not love.

But there was nothing measured about Coughlin’s remarks.  He let his emotions loose.  That had an impact on his players:

“For coach to come out and show you his emotional side, that gets your attention,” said Giants cornerback Aaron Ross, who was benched for poor play way back in Week 2 against the Rams and ended up having a fine bounce-back season. “He’s always a tough, stern guy, so to see that and hear that, it meant a lot.”

Other coaches have drawn out greatness in their teams in a similar way.  Phil Jackson, who has 11 NBA championships as a coach and two more as a player, has said: “Love is the force that ignites the spirit and binds teams together.”

Or course, emotional appeals don’t replace the hard work and preparation a team must do.  Coughlin and the Giants did the work – they stayed healthy, kept focused, practiced plays for countless hours, reviewed game-day strategies.  All that was the foundation.   What inspired the Giants to perform at a higher level was Coughlin’s authentic emotional communication.

Coughlin also showed that great leaders risk change.  For most of his coaching career, Tom Coughlin’s style was old-school tough.  It brought success, but he was able to reach even greater heights by learning to be less controlling and more willing to let his emotions show.  For a guy in his 60s, that kind of change is quite an achievement.

Few leaders have the courage to reveal emotion as Coughlin did.  But when they do, people respond to their authenticity and become inspired to achieve something great – whether it’s launching a new product, making a film or winning a championship.



Friday Risk Reading: Shackleton

I was catching up on holiday reading and came across this excellent New York Times piece on Ernest Shackleton written by Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn.

Shackleton’s ambitious journey to reach the South Pole ended in failure but became a triumph of leadership, courage and determination as he brought his entire crew safely home after a nearly two-year ordeal in the most difficult conditions on the planet.  (It’s an astonishing story, and for a complete account of the saga, Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, is superb.)

Shackleton is a rich source for lessons in leadership, ambition, planning, risk-taking and human behavior, and Koehn draws many parallels to recent crises, from the BP oil spill to the financial crisis.   (I had the pleasure of attending Koehn’s course when she taught the case on Shackleton’s voyage.)   Few leaders today are as visible and accessible as Shackleton, whose daily actions and words shaped the lives of his crew.  Koehn writes:

After the Endurance sank, leaving the men stranded on the ice with three small lifeboats, several tents and supplies, Shackleton realized that he himself had to embody the new survival mission — not only in what he said and did, but also in his physical bearing and the energy he exuded.

He knew that each day, his presence had huge impact on the men’s mind-sets. He managed his own emotional intelligence — to use a modern term — to keep his own courage and confidence high; when these flagged, he never let his men know.

Today, an embattled chief executive is more likely to be on a sailboat (BP’s Tony Hayward) than on the front lines.    Surrounded off by protective advisors and walled inside boardrooms, crisis-wracked CEOs today rarely see the people they lead – even though their actions and attitudes are vital in responding to the crisis and ensuring the company’s success.

The 2011 Risk List: The year’s 5 best risk-takers

As 2011 disappears in the rear-view mirror, here’s my list of noteworthy risk-takers over the past year.  These are the people and institutions that took risks intelligently and won.  The list of risk-bumblers – those who mishandled critical situations – is certainly longer (UBS, Olympus, Yahoo, MF Global, I could go on) but their woes already have been well cataloged, and who wants to start the New Year revisiting disasters?

So here are the top risk-takers:

1.  Jefferies.  Before this year, mid-size investment bank Jefferies happily stayed below the radar, built its business and made a tidy profit.  All that changed when MF Global collapsed and investors started looking more closely at mid-tier firms that are outside the comforting embrace of the Federal Reserve.  As investors questioned its viability and sent its stock reeling, Jefferies took a big risk, opening its books and projecting its voice more aggressively than it ever had before.  In several press releases and an emotional (perhaps too emotional) letter, the firm countered every rumor, supplied facts to thwart speculation and did not back down – or hide behind vague, carefully worded statements.  Eager to draw a line under the turmoil, Jefferies earlier this week released another letter listing the lessons it learned from the ordeal.  Some are head-smackingly obvious, like the importance of trust and the challenge of managing in a hyper-networked world.  Others are more insightful, such as the importance of maintaining a market in your debt securities – a barometer of a firm’s health that can be skewed during a crisis as other dealers withdraw.

2.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.   The Governor’s remarkably disciplined approach brought many accomplishments in his first year.  Passing a same-sex marriage bill in a Republican-controlled legislature, raising taxes on the richest New Yorkers and closing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap took skill and courage.  Cuomo’s risk-taking paid off with the public, in an approval rating near 70 percent, according to a report in the New York Times.

3.  Christopher Hitchens.  His death from cancer on December 15 was a low point in 2011, and I’m already missing his sharp-edged (and whiskey-toned) voice.  (What would he have said about the Iowa caucuses? the new film on Margaret Thatcher?)  Hitchens took plenty of risks throughout his career, but he makes my list for his brave essays on his cancer treatment, included here on the Vanity Fair website.  This chronicle, of what he called his “year of living dyingly” is HItchens at his best – insightful, unsentimental, like wading into a cold mountain stream: it takes your breath away and you still go on.

4.  Sergio Marchionne.   Chrysler was near death in 2009 when the Obama administration brokered a shotgun wedding for the automaker with Fiat, led by its hard-charging CEO, Sergio Marchionne.  With government cash, a quick trip through bankruptcy and new ownership, Chrysler was stabilized.  Two years later, Chrylser has turned a profit, the government loans have been repaid and Fiat recently upped its stake in the automaker to 58.5%, with plans to acquire the remainder by next year.   This turnaround was Marchionne’s biggest yet, and the company looks poised to keep growing.

5.  Michael Cohl, Jeremiah J. Harris, Bono and The Edge for “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.”  At the start of 2011, the Broadway musical based on the famous superhero was mired in controversy, with injured performers and critics who savaged the show as a “seriously depressing disaster.”  Most observers expected the producers (Cohl and Harris), who invested a record-breaking $75 million, to close it and forever be known as a cautionary tale about the hazards of bringing an ambitious, rock-music-inspired show to Broadway.  But the producers and U2’s Bono and The Edge, who wrote the music, decided to fix the show rather than abandon it, making the difficult choice to fire director Julie Taymor and bring in fresh hands to make extensive revisions.   Audiences responded, and by November, the show was turning a profit, leading the producers to predict it would recover its production costs on Broadway, before mounting a lucrative road tour.  The good news continues: Spider-Man set a Broadway record by grossing $2.9 million over the 9-day holiday period in December.

Friday Risk Reading: Fostering a healthy risk culture

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about risk and corporate cultures.  Some cultures produce disasters, like the massive, concealed trading loss at UBS – the most recent in a long streak of debacles for the bank.  Other environments, however, seem consistently to produce good things – valued products and great experiences.  Apple of course comes to mind in this category; Starbucks, too.   Both have cultures that nurture and sustain healthy risk-taking, and I am offering two quick items about them for this week’s Risk Reading.

I’ve written before about Steve Jobs and his attitude toward risk.  Fortunately for us, Jobs was at work on a biography before his death, bringing in Walter Isaacson, a former Time and CNN executive to write it.  Isaacson wrote well regarded biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, and his biography of Jobs promises to shed new light on an intensely private man who, despite his acclaim, was a mystery.

In an essay this week by Isaacson, he hints at what he learned:

But I later realized that he had called me just before he was going to be operated on for cancer for the first time. As I watched him battle that disease, with an awesome intensity combined with an astonishing emotional romanticism, I came to find him deeply compelling, and I realized how much his personality was ingrained in the products he created. His passions, demons, desires, artistry, devilry and obsession for control were integrally connected to his approach to business, so I decided to try to write his tale as a case study in creativity.

It sounds like it will be a terrific book.

Apple and Starbucks share several traits.  They were founded by people with a passionate desire to find new ways of doing things (having coffee and using a computer).  Both founders left and later returned to revive their companies after they’d slipped into crisis.  And both Apple and Starbucks have cultures that encourage creative, constructive risk-taking that energizes their people and produces great results for customers and shareholders.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz reflected on the company’s culture in an interview with the Harvard Business School last summer.  He spoke candidly about facing the company’s problems head-on:

The past two years have been transformational for the company and, candidly, for me personally. When I returned, in January 2008, things were actually worse than I’d thought. The decisions we had to make were very difficult, but first there had to be a time when we stood up in front of the entire company as leaders and made almost a confession—that the leadership had failed the 180,000 Starbucks people and their families. And even though I wasn’t the CEO, I had been around as chairman; I should have known more. I am responsible. We had to admit to ourselves and to the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made. Once we did, it was a powerful turning point. It’s like when you have a secret and get it out: The burden is off your shoulders.

It seems the UBS board and its executives could learn a thing or two from Schultz.


Morgan Stanley struggles to quell risk rumors

The note earlier today by Morgan Stanley CEO Jim Gorman addressing what he called “confusion and misinformation” about the firm wasn’t too reassuring.  It’s not likely to quell the rumors about the firm, nor does it do much to improve Gorman’s stature.

By penning such a short memo (a mere 218 words), Gorman clearly did not want to appear to overreact to rumors, but he did not want to leave them unchallenged, either.  He didn’t reply directly to the “misinformation” but instead offered up a few encouraging points from research analysts who cover the firm, along with a plug to employees to “stay focused on your job.”

But pointing to supportive analyst reports is of limited use.  For one thing, the market has already weighed the analysts’ views and still marked down Morgan Stanley’s shares.   The firm also has to be careful about endorsing a particular analyst.  After all, a supporter today could be a critic tomorrow.  And analysts themselves seldom welcome such endorsements, preferring to keep an impartial distance from the companies they cover.

Time will tell if Gorman’s low-key approach pays off.  That approach didn’t help during the 2008 banking crisis, when banks were slow to respond to the gathering storm.  And worse, when they did reply, their statements were vague and, in many cases, too optimistic.

Facts, not cheerleading, put a stop to rumors.  The only thing that will lift the cloud from Morgan Stanley is detailed information on the firm’s exposures in Europe, liquidity and earnings.  So there will be a lot riding on the firm’s earnings announcement in about two weeks.  If rumors persist and the shares slide further, Gorman might opt to release the financial results earlier.

Friday Risk Reading: Is Failure the Secret to Success?

This week’s recommended risk reading is a recent article from the New York Times Sunday magazine. Entitled “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?,” the article examines a new approach to building character among students, not simply strengthening their academic performance.  It’s clearly hit a nerve, topping the most-emailed list on the Times website all week.

At the center of the article are a handful of teachers and scholars who are taking the risk of asking hard questions about the way we educate kids.  They’re examining whether we are preparing them to be successful in life, not merely good at taking standardized tests.

Dominic Randolph, headmaster at the prestigious Riverdale Country School, captures the issue well:

“The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

What struck me about the article was that it essentially asks whether we are encouraging kids to take enough risk in the course of their education – and whether we as parents are capable of letting them, overcoming the desire to shield kids from hardship:

“It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”

Ok, so I’ll cook dinner, but after that, kids, you’re on your own.

5 Lessons from Mariano Rivera

Even if you’re not an ardent baseball fan, you have to be impressed with Mariano Rivera, the incomparable relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, who two days ago set the record for most saves, at 602.  Sports writers long ago ran out of superlatives for describing Rivera’s talent and durability, and the crucial role he has played in the Yankees’ success over the past sixteen years.

But what can Rivera’s remarkable career teach us, the mere mortals of the earth?  I believe there are five lessons.

1.  The numbers tell only part of the story.   Rivera’s stats are, in a word, astounding.  Rivera has a lifetime ERA of 2.22, the second lowest in history for a pitcher with more than 1,000 innings.  He’s even more dominant in postseason play, where he has an ERA of 0.71 and a towering 42 saves.  But what makes him truly special isn’t in the numbers.   Statistics don’t capture Rivera’s presence on the mound, his defensive skill, his leadership in the clubhouse and his ability to throw the right pitch at the right time, in game after game.  The lesson: don’t overlook the intangible factors for success that escape the metrics – whether in your people, products or strategy.

2.  He started out doing something else.  When Rivera joined the Yankees in 1995 he was an average starting pitcher who struggled to throw a curveball.   Two years later, his coolness under pressure established him as a relief pitcher, and the rest is history.  In organizations, a lot of people are in the right ballpark but not in the right position.  Finding the spot where they can thrive makes all the difference.

3.  Consistency works.   We see Mariano Rivera work his magic for an inning, in a dozen or so pitches.   What we don’t see is the intensive preparation that precedes it.  Rivera is known for his focus and his work ethic, which have allowed him to perform consistently at a high level.  Jason Varitek, the veteran catcher for the Boston Red Sox, spoke insightfully about this in a New York Times article last year:

Varitek described Rivera’s success with a catcher’s dispassionate appreciation. “You see guys with sometimes even better stuff unable to make quality pitches when the game is on the line,” he said. Rivera, with his easy delivery and simplicity of moving parts, had the gift of execution. “The ability to repeat,” Varitek said, “is both mental and mechanical.”

The practice, drills and routines that have enabled Rivera to execute successfully can also found in top musicians, artists and writers, or just about anyone at the peak of their profession.  Few can stay there without them.

4.  Innovation matters.  You’d think a game as old as baseball had seen pretty much everything.  But nobody, at least in our generation, has seen a pitch like Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball.  The New York Times profile describes it thus:

Plenty of other pitchers throw a cutter, including Phil Hughes, a Yankees starter. Hughes says, however, that though he grips the cutter the same way Rivera does, “it does a lot less.” It’s true: Hughes’s cutter is a fastball with a little swivel at the end, while Rivera’s cutter is, as the Yankees’ puckish outfielder Nick Swisher puts it, “a heat-seeking missile, and the target is the handle of your bat.” Rivera’s cutter is faster and breaks more than just about anyone else’s and almost always ends up exactly where Rivera wants it to be. Though Rivera throws a single pitch 80 percent of the time, the velocity, break and pinpoint control still make him almost unhittable.

Just as the cut fastball propelled Rivera’s career, a great innovation in business can disrupt markets, extend the life of a brand and build fierce customer loyalty.   (See my related posts on Steve Jobs  and Keith Richards for other examples.)

5.  He learns from failure.   Mariano Rivera seldom fails, which is impressive.  But even more impressive is his ability to learn from failure.  In Game 4 of the 1997 American league Division Series, Rivera gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Cleveland Indians, who reached Rivera’s fading cutter with just enough bat to clear the right-center-field fence.  Cleveland went on to win the game and the series.  In the off-season, Rivera adapted his cutter so it would move inside and down against right-handed hitters like Alomar.  Rivera was even more unhittable, and the Yankees captured the World Series for the next three years.