“Heartbreak” in the NFL: Tough lessons in leadership


Even if you did not witness the recent 2015 AFC Wild Card game, or care a thing about it, chances are you still caught wind of the Cincinnati Bengals’ devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“This one tops all others in terms of heartbreak,” laments Cincinnati sports columnist, John Fay.

Many football fans and analysts consider the January 10th, 2015 Wild Card game to be both a heartbreak and a disgrace due to each team’s failure to uphold standards of professional football.

If nothing else, this game illustrates how a few out-of-line individuals can hijack the mission of an entire team or business. It reminds us that strong leadership is crucial to managing talent and providing clear direction.

The Bengals-Steelers Fiasco

By and large, this was an ugly game of football between two bitter rivals, marred by unruly behavior, controversial calls and personal fouls on both sides. And for the Bengals, personal fouls  ultimately lost them the game.

Throughout the game, there was a general sense that several Bengals were playing dirty defense and treading on dangerous lines. Yet, they stayed in the game and tensions continued to mount, until at last, they blew up in the bitter end.

The Bengals managed to make a late comeback from 0-15 with “arguably one of the biggest drives in franchise history,” according to Fay. This turned the tables and gave them a 16-15 lead.

Suddenly, Cincinnati found itself on the verge of its first playoff win in 25 years.

And then, with only ninety seconds left in the game, it all fell apart. The Bengals fumbled the ball, and their defense recklessly imploded with two consecutive instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.

Those last-minute penalties cost them 30 yards, which handed the Steelers just enough yardage to get within field goal range to win the game 18-16 in the final seconds.

Both franchises—the Bengals and the Steelers—have been seriously questioned in the aftermath of the game, though largely in terms of Bengals’ own self-destruction. This self-destruction, on home turf no less, boiled down to an avoidable lack of professionalism and discipline.

At the end of the day, standards of professional sportsmanship were permitted to fall by the wayside, resulting in a defeat that was also an embarrassment. In fact, even off of the field, the Bengals couldn’t resist celebrating the fall of the Steelers to the Broncos the following week, and made it quite public via social media.

The Importance of Leadership

There has been, and will no doubt continue to be, fine-tuned discussion over who was truly at fault, but it was ultimately the leadership—coaches, owners and management—who will be held responsible for team results and conduct. They must establish and uphold standards and values. The failure to do so cost them more than just a game.

The Pitfalls of Leadership

The Cincinnati Bengals’ Vontaze Burfict is our case and point because his personal conduct hijacked team results. He has proven himself to be a highly talented athlete and yet a dangerous liability. His strength on the field helped bring the Bengals back into the game, but his reckless and undisciplined conduct ensured their downfall.

Talent can be counterproductive, even disastrous, if it wanders out of step with an organization’s shared values and mission. {click to tweet this}

Forbes contributor Chris Cancialosi warns against building a team based solely on talent:

“As a leader, you may be tempted to hire an individual, or keep him in your organization, based on talent alone. Unfortunately, this might be a recipe for disaster. To make a difference, talented people[…]need to be properly aligned to advance an organization’s long-term goals.”

Not upholding expectations can cloud the message and hinder the mission. {click to tweet this}

In a January 6th Fast Company article, CEO Matt MacInnis argues for the importance of being clear, direct and uncompromising when it comes to group expectations and values.

He asserts that one common stumbling block to enforcing expectations is unchecked empathy and fear of confrontation.  Modern workplaces tend to prioritize harmony over results and pleasant interactions over productive conflict.

In order for a team to be productive, there is a proven need to be clear and direct about goals and expectations. MacInnis concludes:

In business, success comes from a relentless drive for results. And that, of course, takes people skills—including well-placed empathy. But communicating with authenticity, purpose, and transparency is a part of that skill set, too, and it earns you the respect of those around you, however uncomfortable it might make them once in a while.


There seem to be good reasons for Bengals CEO Mike Brown to fire Coach Marvin Lewis, but he does not and will not. What is happening here? Is the Cincinnati franchise valuing harmony over results? Continuity over change? Raw talent over all else?

Regardless, our takeaway is this—failing to lead, motivate and teach your employees by way of your company’s goals, expectations, standards, values, and ethics, can cause a good organization with a great product or service to fail — even with all the talent in the world on your team.

As what has happened for seven years in a row to Cincinnati football.

Exceptional talent takes exceptional leadership; which can make the final difference between success and failure. {click to tweet this}

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Pam Wasley

Pamela Wasley is CEO for Cerius Executives (www.ceriusexecutives.com), the largest national online provider of part time, temporary, temp-to-perm and contract (consulting) executives where you can search and quickly find the right match for …

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  1. J. Russell Burck, PhD

    January 18, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    Ms. Wasley,

    Thank you for this wonderful article with powerful ready-to-tweet takeaways.

    I would have liked it better if the article had cherished the final point/tweet even more than it does. Great talent is a treasure. It needs to be treated like a treasure, that is, it needs to be held in a safe space. Exceptional leadership would contain the exceptional talent in both senses. Something like: “1) We love you and we support you and 2) we’re counting on you to support the team, and if you don’t there will be consequences. Even for you.”

    Finally, your last sentence is a booming home run (pardon the switch in games), way, way, way out of the park.

    Thanks again,

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