So, yeah, it happened again: the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LVII earlier this week. I know the Vikings and Packers fans reading this (actually, probably anyone outside of Kansas City reading this) may not care, but that’s two championships in four years and another major milestone in this half-decade run. After 50 years of mixed (if not below average) results, the last five years have been the greatest time there has ever been to be a Chiefs fan. So indulge me for a moment (and I WILL get to the stuff that’s useful for leaders and professionals in a minute!).
For those who don’t know, I’m a diehard Chiefs fan. I was born and raised in Kansas City, and I’m a third-generation season ticket holder (yes, while living 400 miles away in Minneapolis). I was at both playoff games in Arrowhead last month, taking my 20-year-old son to his first NFL playoff game (he’s still reflecting on the tailgating experience with his 80,000 new friends, along with the 142.2 decibel roar from the loudest stadium in the world — things you can describe but not fully understand until you’re there). And I just returned from attending Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix, an opportunity I was fortunate enough to get, thanks to having made a donation to a nonprofit, thereby securing an affordable ticket. I joke with my wife that my “once in a lifetime experience” apparently happens twice every three years. I do feel blessed.
The game itself was terrific — an instant classic on sports’ biggest stage: two top ranked deserving teams exchanging blows like heavyweight champions. The Eagles dominated the first half (the Chiefs, quite honestly, didn’t play well at all). And with under two minutes to go in the half, uber-talented quarterback Patrick Mahomes reinjured his right ankle and limped off the field in obvious pain (for those of you who don’t know, high ankle sprains usually take two to six weeks to heal; he played through the entire playoffs with this one). Being down by 10 points at halftime usually isn’t the end of the line for this team – they have a habit of making double digit comebacks. But without Mahomes, it absolutely would be the end of the season. But he somehow miraculously “recovered” during the 45-minute extended halftime and returned to the game to orchestrate one of the best second halves in Super Bowl history. The Chiefs put up 24 points against the world class Eagles defense in the second half, scoring on every possession and winning 38-35.
But this article isn’t an analysis of the game itself (sorry — I couldn’t help myself for a minute), but rather the similarities between between high performance in sports and high performance in organizations I think are noteworthy. So if you’ve read this far, here are a few lessons on winning I think are worth sharing…
Resilience: Sometimes champions are made because of luck – playing other teams at the “right” time, getting a fortunate bounce or call here and there, staying healthy throughout the season. The same is true in business (timing the market for a new product; capitalizing on an environmental shift, such as those businesses that actually benefited because of the pandemic). I guess all of that is true, but I’d assert that successful teams sometimes make their own luck, and that resiliency – bouncing back better, stronger, faster from adversity than what might be expected — is what really separates the great from the good.
I mentioned Mahomes’ ankle injury. Many teams might fold when their star goes down, but it appeared that the injury only motivated the Chiefs: their defense somehow flipped a switch and got better; their backup quarterback led a 98-yard touchdown drive while Mahomes was being evaluated; the training staff redoubled their efforts to get their star back on the field; the coaches adjusted schemes and the gameplan to accommodate the situation.
Adversity happens — to sports teams, to businesses and organizations, to individual leaders and people. It’s how you respond to adversity that separates champions from also-rans. To continue to win in the face of adversity, organizations need agility — they need the ability to make rapid change and flexibility in operations. They also need what Deming called “constancy of purpose” — a culture that supports the willingness to persist despite challenges.
Organizational Learning (Especially from Failure): In the hours after the game, KC’s star tight end Travis Kelce was quoted in saying: “If things come easy, you don’t appreciate them as much.” As good as the Chiefs have been the last few years, what he was referring to is the team’s loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV two years ago and the devastating overtime loss to the Bengals in the AFC Championship game last year, preventing them from even reaching the Super Bowl. After winning it all three years ago, both of those defeats were difficult pills to swallow.
But sports teams — like business teams — need to learn from failure: they need to evaluate and study what went wrong, learn, make adjustments, and recommit to fundamentals. Improving dozens of little things eventually add up to improvements in the bigger things. So rather than penalizing or punishing, high performing teams strive to learn from their mistakes. High performing teams also use failures to motivate (you just “want it” more) — failure can reenergize the team. Paraphrasing Kelce’s wisdom: nothing worth achieving comes easy.
Experience Matters: I remember a keynote at a Baldrige Quest for Excellence conference several years ago (I think he was the editor of Fortune Magazine) cite the research of Malcolm Gladwell, indicating it takes 10,000 hours of practice — in virtually anything (sports, music, dancing, performing surgery, leading teams, teaching in a classroom) — to achieve mastery. Mastery takes practice; mastery takes repetition; mastery takes experience over time to build instinctual knowledge.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has now coached in six Super Bowls (four as a head coach); defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has coached in five; offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has coached in three. In fact, adding up the Super Bowl experience of KC’s top six coaches, the Chiefs have 30 Super Bowl games of experience (and that’s not to mention several key players now having played in three Super Bowls themselves).
All of that experience showed throughout the game. In a white-knuckled slugfest that went down to the final seconds, Coach Reid and his staff didn’t flinch: they calmly went blow-for-blow with the Eagles until they were able to close the deal at the end. Lesser experienced coaches sometimes let the moment get to them: they make silly mistakes; they call the wrong play or make the wrong decision. With more experience, coaches (leaders) and players (team members) have “seen it all,” allowing them to make decisions under pressure that have a higher probability of success. All of this translates to business: teams need training, on-the-job experience, reward and reinforcement, and practice, practice, practice so that when the moment comes, the team will perform.
Talent and Team Chemistry: Teams are collections of individuals. But what makes any team successful is when the individuals are better than the sum of their parts. The Chiefs have super talented, Hall of Fame level players – Mahomes, Tracy Kelce, Chris Jones, others. But they also played 10 rookies during this year’s Super Bowl. In fact, this KC team only has 15 players on roster (out of 53) from their championship team just three years ago. For what it’s worth, this level of turnover in business probably isn’t good! But in sports (especially in an era of free agency and salary caps), teams have to constantly “reload” their rosters every year. And to me, the most successful teams have an incredible ability to find and integrate complementary players into an already strong core team: finding a balance of experienced, veteran players with new, younger (and cheaper) energy. To succeed in talent and team chemistry, you need strong recruiting, selection, onboarding and training (in football, I guess we call that coaching), as well as strategy and play design (in business, we call that job design and organization structure).
So as gifted as the Chiefs team was athletically, it also had in harmony: there were leaders on both sides of the ball; the locker room was filled with fun and lightheartedness; there were no egos that sometimes comes from having so many elite players. From everything I’ve read and seen, I honestly think this group congealed as a balanced team. All-for-one, one-for-all type thing. Chemistry; culture; a real sense of team is required to achieve excellence.
Extraordinary Leadership: Much has been written about the correlation of strong leadership leading to strong organizational performance. But it’s true: success in any endeavor requires highly effective, consistent leadership. My final example from the Chiefs involves Mahomes himself. He’s the greatest quarterback playing right now; he’s quite possibly the greatest quarterback to ever have played the game (only time will tell if that’s the case). You’ll never hear him say that – or even hint of that. He does, however, frequently take responsibility for his mistakes (actually, I’ve heard him take responsibility for others’ mistakes). He commits to personal excellence and seems to rally everyone else around him to seek higher levels of excellence in their own performance.
Kansas City sportswriter Rocky Magana said this: “At his core, Mahomes plays the game like a big kid who is out there having fun with his friends. There is purity in his approach to the game. When you were a child — playing football in the backyard with your friends — nobody really cared about the group’s best player. You were just kids. You were playing a game and having fun being around each other. Mahomes knows he is the best player on the playground, but he doesn’t need to talk about it — because to him, being the best player is only useful if it helps his team win. That way, his friends can have more fun.”
Magana goes on to say that people flock to authenticity — they can smell a fake from miles away. If Mahomes’ humility wasn’t real, we would all know it by now — we’d sniff it out. He’d eventually reveal the truth. But after so many years, we can declare that it’s not an act: Mahomes is the real deal. Magana: “when the best player on the team is humble and accountable to his teammates, it’s infectious. The rest of the team has no choice but to follow suit. In large part, the Chiefs’ culture is due to the childlike enthusiasm with which Mahomes plays football.” He’s humble; he’s authentic; he’s the true leader on a championship team.
These concepts reflect the necessary ingredients of any championship team. And I think every single factor that went into propelling the Chiefs to the top of the NFL this year could be said of a winning business, hospital, school, or nonprofit agency. Sure, they had a little luck and good fortune. But they had resilience; they learned from their past failures; they capitalized on their collective experience; they had talent and chemistry; and they had extraordinary leadership. If those ingredients worked to create a championship football team, I’m pretty sure they’d work to create championship organizations. Thanks for indulging me!
What other insights/tips do you have on creating a championship team? Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.
Never stop improving!
Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network
A Catalyst for Success Since 1987!