It’s been over a week since the Eagles defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl and the city of Philadelphia is still buzzing, with many people reflecting over the past season and how the underdog Eagles came to be the best team in the country. One of the reasons for the team’s rise to greatness can be summed up in the message Eagles coach Doug Pederson shared with his players after their epic Super Bowl win last week, “An individual can make a difference but a team can make a miracle.” This statement reflects the team climate Pederson has worked to create since becoming the head coach of the team two years ago, a climate that has taken the team to unprecedented success.
In 2016 Pederson was hired as the Eagles head coach for his leadership style, or more specifically his Emotional Intelligence (EI). Despite the evidence that Chip Kelly – the anti-relational leader’s – style didn’t work, many people gave Jeffery Lurie a hard time for thinking that EI was what was needed to lead an NFL team to success. One of the reasons for this is that emotional intelligence is often misunderstood and used to describe leaders in terms like “touchy-feely” or “open-hearted”. We hate these terms – it dismisses and belittles what EI is really about. It lets strong men off the hook from looking at themselves, their leadership and their relationships. Really strong men are not afraid to add emotional intelligence to their quiver of approaches, they recognize its inherent value.
Leading a professional football team is as complex as any leadership situation we have worked with, and made harder for sports’ insistence on maintaining a culture that acts as if feelings don’t exist or matter, or are in fact, a sign of weakness. This is a self-delusion since we know that sports’ and sports people – fans, leaders, players, sports writers love the idea and experience of competition, confidence, and loyalty to name a few feelings. So, let’s admit it – feelings matter, and let’s broaden our emotional literacy. How about friendship, trust, disappointment, transcendence, joy?
The reality is that emotional intelligence is a critical skill set for leaders and team members that research continually shows differentiates good leaders and team members from great ones.
What is this thing, EI? In a nutshell, emotional intelligence is the ability for a leader to be self-aware, to manage their emotional responses, to be in tune with the emotions of others and skillfully manage relationships. Whether leaders are in the boardroom or the locker room, the ones with high EI are defined by their authenticity, strong relationships, care for others and ability to inspire and influence those they lead. Contrast this with leaders who are emotionally explosive, unaware of and/or unconcerned about their impact on others and even verbally abusive and you can see why the former inspire loyalty and get the most out of their teams while the latter demoralize their teams, create fear and often hemorrhage top talent (see Chip Kelly). In football, we envision the prototypical leader as having a military style top-down, dictatorial approach. Ugh, that is so old school, worn out and simplistic. Players and staff are not robots. Pederson’s success proves that facilitative leadership, characterized by listening and inquiring; and changing course based on what you hear, is extremely effective even in professional sports. It is not a sign of weakness to adapt your approach and style, to change based on the person or situation you are facing. Arguably, that is what Pedersen and the team had to do when Wentz got hurt, and they did so because Pederson had consistently demonstrated that he and they could do this long before that fateful day.
A leader has immense power by the function of his role and his personality, in setting the team climate, which in turn impacts how people work together, especially in a high-pressure environment like the NFL, college basketball or on a stock trading floor. We see this time and again with the leaders and teams, we work with whether Fortune 500 executives, D1 basketball coaches or local non-profit leaders. On the field, professional football players need to constantly communicate with their teammates and hold each other accountable for missed assignments or poor execution, often in the seconds before the next play is called. An emotionally intelligent leader like Coach Pederson creates team ties strong enough to withstand this conflict, allowing players to internalize feedback, forgive themselves and each other and improve on the fly. When they do this, they win, when they win, we experience joy!
Jeffrey Lurie’s insight into these leadership qualities when he hired Doug Pederson has served the Eagles well and is undoubtedly a major contributing factor to their first Super Bowl win in 52 years.
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