Favre & Vick: Lessons in leadership and life

August 20, 2009

It’s been an eventful few weeks in football land, with two announcements catching my eye in particular (or rather, they were hard to miss): The Minnesota Vikings welcomed quarterback Brett Favre to the team this week and Michael Vick is back in action with the Philadelphia Eagles. No doubt, both are known to be incredible football players. We wouldn’t be talking about them if they weren’t. Both instances offer lessons in leadership and the communication challenges leaders face during the decision making process. From the outside, it doesn’t appear that open and honest communication had a role in either decision. Should it be that way?

The Vikings have been on the Favre merry-go-round for the past few months. The on-again, off-again conversations were no doubt exhausting for football fans but more so on the entire Vikings squad — Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson in particular. nfl_a_favre1_sy_576Following Tuesday’s reports it seemed that neither QB had any indication that Favre joining the team was still even an option. Imagine working your butt off in training camp for the past month, believing that you had a good shot at being in the starting lineup, only to be told one day that one of the greatest QB’s in NFL history was coming out of retirement and to your team? Sure, it’s a learning opportunity for the other two QB’s, but if I were them, I’d have a hard time seeing the cup half full. 

On the plus side, Favre is great news for fans and sponsors. Merchandise sales will go through the roof. His presence will likely guarantee there won’t be any blackouts for the Vikes this season, generating great exposure for sponsors on TV and in the stadium. And, as the NBC affiliate reported, his signing with the Vikes lit the match on the fire that is the Packers/Vikes rivalry. Bonus! On the down side, how do you keep your other QB’s and the rest of the team motivated? You didn’t inform them or include them in your decision. It isn’t apparent that any thought was given to prepping the team, to allow them time to process it, or to cultivate relationships required for great teamwork. Now just days away from the second pre-season game, they have to change course in an instant. Could this have been avoided?

Head on over to Philly, where we’re left to wonder about the Eagles’ decision to sign Vick. Plus side: he was one of the most heavily recruited and talented players the NFL has seen. Down side: he’s spent the past two-plus years in prison serving time for funding a dogfighting ring and brutally beating and even killing dogs that didn’t perform. Vick was conditionally reinstated by the NFL commissioner  back in August with the caveat that he’s on his best behavior. The argument is that he’s served his time and should be allowed redemption for his actions. (Would the exception have been made for a mediocre player? I doubt it.)

Apparently there has been little backlash from Eagles fans or sponsors for the decision. vickmainOnly a few fans cancelled their season tickets, and no sponsors have pulled out. As reported in Ad Age, the Eagles gave major sponsors and some big-ticket suite owners advance warning of the decision, but what about the other 40+ sponsors? Would the sponsors’ response have been different if the Eagles staff told them that they were contemplating signing Vick before they actually signed him? Would they have expressed concern or stayed the course? Would they have tried to renegotiate the contract?

Having worked in a large corporation and having managed a large sports sponsorship, you better believe I would have wanted to know about the decision to hire Vick. Not telling me doesn’t allow me the chance to respond,  to prepare for internal questions from leadership, employees or customers and,  in my opinion, doesn’t treat me as a valued partner. I recognize that a sponsor’s job isn’t to build the team but my job is to best represent my brand. Lincoln Financial Group (naming rights to the stadium for the next 20 years) said they “aren’t a part of personnel decisions”, but I guarantee that if the Eagles front office got a call from Lincoln saying that they had an issue with Vick, this story would have had a different ending.

There are the obvious sensitivities around the Favre and Vick announcements such as privacy issues and the potential for the story to leak to the public. But I think the Eagles and Vikes owed it to their partners and their teams to communicate their decisions and open the door for discussion. Not giving people all of the information means that you:

  • Don’t trust them
  • Don’t respect them enough to tell them the truth
  • Don’t feel they can handle the truth
  • Don’t value their opinion

Some might tell me to suck it up, it’s just a game; but I say open and honest communication should always reign supreme. Or maybe the lesson isn’t about communicating during the decision making process; rather it’s that life isn’t fair.