Matt Lewis

Mike Shanahan on leadership [UPDATED]

Anyone who’s ever tried to turn around a failing team knows how difficult it is. Changing an organization’s culture takes time, but our modern “instant gratification” society demands success now.

Most leaders — in order to keep their jobs — eventually succumb to the “go to war with the army you have” philosophy. They make due, keep people (especially the boss!) happy, and hope for the best.

This isn’t ideal (it often leads to mediocrity) — but it is a survival strategy. If I told my boss it would take five years before my blog posts started generating page views, I probably wouldn’t be paid as a writer for long. (How many of us would be given five years to turn something around?)

Along those lines, count me among the impatient fans who criticized Mike Shanahan’s early tenure as coach of the Washington Redskins.

How egotistical, I thought, that he would stubbornly cling to his “system” — trying to fit square peg players into round holes. Wouldn’t it be wiser, I reasoned, if he were to be humble enough to adapt his scheme to the talent available?

The most obvious example was his dispute with two-time Pro Bowler Albert Haynesworth over  Shanahan’s preferred 3-4 defensive scheme. From the outside, at least, it appeared that Shanahan’s “my way” insistence ruined a player the team had signed for tens of millions of dollars.

During the first two years of his tenure, Shanahan’s failure to get desired results led many to conclude that he wasn’t up for the job — that he was an egomaniac who had only succeeded when he had a great quarterback like John Elway in Denver.

Joe Gibbs, it was noted, had won a playoff game more recently than Shanahan.

Many fans would have probably fired Shanahan, given the opportunity (Sure, there’s something to be said staying the course, but at some point, isn’t it wise to cut your losses?)

This type of speculation has quickly ended — and Shanahan’s playoff drought could end this Sunday — if the Redskins defeat the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the NFC playoffs.

And as is often the case in sports, there is a larger leadership lesson here. Rather than giving up, accepting reality, and adapting his coaching style to best fit the mediocre team he was handed, Shanahan insisted on doing this his way. It seemed foolish. It was, perhaps risky. But — after bringing in great rookie players like RGIII and running back Alfred Morris — it finally paid off for Shanahan.

He refused mediocrity (which would have given him more job security), and instead, held out for the chance at greatness.

Frankly, it’s probably a miracle that owner Dan Synder gave Shanahan a long enough leash to actually implement his plans.

During a segment that aired on NBC’s Football Night in America last Sunday, Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told Bob Costas,

 When I came here, I looked at our football team and said to [Redskins owner Dan Snyder], ‘If you plan to fire me before five years, then you are picking the wrong guy. This football team needs to be rebuilt. If you want me to do it the right way, I’ll do it the right way. If you want me to do it the quick way, then that’s not me. So if you are going to hire me, give me five years and I’ll do it right.’

The fact that Shanahan said this — and Snyder agreed — is not terribly surprising. More amazing is the fact that Snyder stuck to the agreement, amid the losses and the immense pressure to win. You don’t get to be Dan Snyder without being a type-a personality. And type-a personalities are often capricious. They don’t tend to tolerate losing for long — despite what they may say.

There’s a reason why we elect our politicians for a term. Things take time to ripen. If a president doesn’t deliver after four years, then the public can vote them out of office. But you can’t throw them out after a few weeks. Were he elected to a four year term, Shanahan would have found a way to turn things around just in time for a landslide re-election.

For years, Snyder thought he could buy victory by hiring the next coach — and by signing high-dollar, big-name, free-agents (remember Deion Sanders?)

If you’re a Redskins fan, the hope is that, like late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — who spent years meddling with a once-great sports franchise –Snyder might finally have found his Joe Torre.

UPDATE: Well that didn’t go well. In the wake of RG3’s knee injury, many observers are raising serious questions about Shanahan’s leadership.