Leadership lessons from the Headlines: The Harbaugh brothers

jjharbaughThe 2013 Super Bowl will feature a first: Two brothers coaching opposing teams for a professional sports championship.  That’s not the most remarkable aspect to the game.

Each coach made a risky change to personnel in order to win.  

Mid-season, though Alex Smith was faring adequately at quarterback, he went out for a while with an injury.  Backup QB Colin Kaepernick stepped in and showed what he could do.  And he showed a lot. When Smith came back healthy and ready to start, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh made a decision to keep Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback. The effect was immediate as Colin demonstrated a more potent throwing capability and, as one of the fastest men on the field, an explosive running game.  More importantly, he had earned the confidence of his fellow players that he could lead them to the Super Bowl.  They played better for Kaepernick.  And the players were right. They wouldn’t have made it to the Super Bowl without Coach Harbaugh’s decision.

John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with former Colts (read: Peyton Manning) head coach Jim Caldwell.  But it was a tough decision as Cam was a mentor to, and close friend of, Coach Harbaugh’s.  Even when Caldwell’s offense only scored 17 points in the next two games combined,  Harbaugh didn’t panic or flinch.  The rejuvenated and confident quarterback Joe Flacco had a more wide-open playbook to work with and the offense became less predictable.

Four leadership lessons stand out to me from this story:

1. Leadership requires decisiveness.  It seems obvious, but I see more indecision at times than I see decisiveness, even at the highest levels in organizations.  I have watched loyalty to friends overlook a list of gross indiscretions (see Penn State for this at its worst) and I’ve watched groups fail to reach their potential due to a low capacity in leadership 0r a lack of fresh learning among the leaders.  And I’ve probably been guilty of all of these.

2. Decisiveness doesn’t mean you get to run over people.  Interestingly, each brother hesitated a bit to make the decision.  Jim wanted to honor Alex’s leadership for the 49ers while knowing that Colin was the team’s new leader.  John was a friend of Cameron’s, and was even mentored by him.  He wanted to make sure that the relationship endured even though the leadership role was changing.  Christian organizations, especially youth ministries, don’t have a very good track record in making similar changes.  We too easily toss people aside without care, which may explain why the first lesson is so difficult.

3.  Sometimes it is about capacity. This is the stark reality that we face:  Some people just get things done better, faster, or with more excellence than others.  We’re not all the same. Not everyone is a leader. Not everyone is an organizer. Not everyone is a good counselor.  Some do things “good.”  Others do them “better.”  A few do them “best.”  For the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick was the best option and may be one of the best quarterbacks in the entire league in 2 years.

4.  However, we can learn greater excellence.  This may seem to contradict #2, but it doesn’t.  We can’t allow our weaknesses as excuses to wallow in mediocrity in our strengths.   Settling for average where God has gifted you to be “better” is poor stewardship of your gifts.  Cam Cameron got in a rut in play-calling and couldn’t work out of it. I get in a rut in my teaching style sometimes, doing the same ol’ thing that I’ve done before, and need a fresh change from time to time. But we can’t do this if we’re not teachable! 


Which of these stood out to you?  Is there a lesson I’m missing.  I think each are fascinating stories.  As a caveat, some of Coach Jim Harbaugh’s ex-teammates (Jim was a quarterback in the NFL prior to coaching) said he wouldn’t have handled the demotion as well as Alex Smith has.  Perhaps we leaders are like that too, leading people in ways we would never want to be led ourselves?