Questionable Leadership Decisions: “Pass or Run?”


Super Bowl XLIX was this weekend. The Seattle Seahawks had second-and-goal at the 1 with 26 seconds remaining. The Seahawks were only one yard away from a second consecutive championship. Everyone, including me, knew that the only logical thing was for the quarterback to hand off the ball to their best running back to run the ball into the end zone.

Instead, the Seahawk’s coach called a pass play that was intercepted by the New England Patriots. For years to come, sports analysts (and the Seahawks locker room) will second-guess the Seahawks’ coach’s decision. After the game, a Seahawks player was asked if he was shocked by the coach’s decision to throw, and he replied that “coaches know it better than us.”

I have been a federal mid-level manager for 12 years, and I have made my share of questionable decisions. Case and point, as a new director at a new federal agency, I consciously decided not to rely upon the “go to” staff person. Non-managerial employees feel it is unfair to hire managers who they have to “show the ropes.”  I agree, but what I did not know then, but know now, is that this senior analyst had the “ear” of my supervisor who saw my non-reliance on her best employee as not being a team player.

I have also watched other federal managers make questionable decisions that their employees paid the consequences for. Years ago, I worked for a manager who I consider to be one of the best supervisors I had. His technical skills were legendary throughout the agency; he was knowledgeable, innovative, and approachable. I could not understand why he had not been chosen for a higher level position. At the time, I was unaware that he was involved in a compromising relationship with another employee. He refused to end it even though he knew it was adversely impacting his office’s morale.

Of course, this is not the norm, but I know of instances that are the norm in which management (1) changed work processes without fully understanding the ramifications (2) reassigned employees rather than take disciplinary action (3) allowed employees to be idle in order to not interact with them (4) intimidated subordinate employees to gain their compliance. In other words, they chose to “pass” instead of “run.”

Everyone makes mistakes, but management’s mistakes can have a trickle-down effect. Going back to my decision to not rely upon the “go to” employee, if given the opportunity to do again, I would do the same.

Why?  Managerial decisions are about maintaining control when the “chips are down,” and earning (and keeping) respect.  Recently, I watched as another new federal manager relied solely upon an employee. Soon, the employee left for another agency. Within 5 months, the manager selected that same employee for a promotion to return to the agency. Now, the employee is in control.  Even with the backlash, the Seahawks coach accepted blame and thus, maintained his control and respect.

With that being said “do coaches know it better than us?” Does management know it better than their employees? Is it acceptable for the locker room to second-guess the Seahawks’ coach’s decision? Is it okay to question management’s decisions when they could have uncertain outcomes? Do you “pass” or “run?” I will let you decide.

Cynthia V White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Matthew Garlipp

Instead of going with the tried and true approach (enter: Beast Mode), Pete Carroll took a risk. In this instance, the risk didn’t pay off. But if football coaches — as well as public managers — never took any risks, innovation would be lacking. Nice post, Cynthia!

David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Cynthia, you raise several excellent points. You know what they say, hindsight is 20/20. It’s foresight that matters most, as you point out.