What the Dallas Cowboys can teach you about Leadership
Some of my earliest memories are of watching football with my grandmother. Not just football, but Dallas Cowboys football.
There I sat, propped up on the couch so I could see the television and reach my snacks, watching these larger than life men play the game I would come to love. Sunday after Sunday, I cheered and screamed. I daydreamed Tom Landry could be my grandfather and when Roger Staubach was knocked out of the game, I cried.
Fast forward to Sunday evening as the Cowboys traveled to FedEx Field to play the Washington Redskins and, with a win, a chance to advance to the playoffs. Would America’s Team show up and put to rest, for one more season, whether their team is worthy of this moniker and all the national attention they garner? Or would they fail to advance yet again and make another run at the Lombardi Trophy?
The latter scenario played out and the debate rages on as to whether they deserve to be called America’s Team. It remains difficult to make a case for a team that hasn’t won more than one playoff game since 1996. What is wrong with this storied franchise? I have my opinion. Politely corner me in a sports bar, buy me a drink and I’ll be happy to share it with you.
Even with the lack of recent postseason appearances and victories, however, there is plenty to learn from a team like the Dallas Cowboys as they approach their annual Draft in April. I had the pleasure of recently talking to Bryan Broaddus, NFL football analyst and longtime scout for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, about this very subject.
A lot of work goes into preparing the Board a team will use to rate draft eligible players. Armed with more information than possibly imaginable, individual players are evaluated, studied and assigned a grade. As the Cowboys’ brain trust gathers for the Draft, they set the intention to “follow their process and follow their Board”.
Despite all the long hours that go in to preparing for this annual event, there will always be instances during the Draft where in a matter of minutes, decisions will need to be made. Decisions that, until the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA), stood to cost a franchise tens of millions of guaranteed dollars. Not to mention a draft pick, something coveted by most teams, and not to be squandered on a player who may never make the team. The stakes remain high, especially at the quarterback position.
In these instances, when each team is “on the clock”, leaders emerge. For the Dallas Cowboys, that leader and final decision maker is the team’s owner, president and general manager, Jerry Jones.
For you, it may be a Board of Directors meeting, a critical, senior management hire, or a multi-million dollar sale where your colleagues look to you as the final decision is reached.
Broaddus, who now shares his insights and experience on Dallas Cowboys.com, talked to me about two instances where Jerry Jones was faced with the decisions that business leaders face in all walks of life. With the clock ticking and an immovable deadline looming, will you follow your process and your Board or will you allow stress and emotional influences to move you away from your preparation and instincts?
In 1998, the Cowboys were on the clock with the 8th overall pick in the first round. A wide receiver with widely reported concerns over past behavior was ranked highly on their Board and was available to them. The wide receiver was Randy Moss.
The Cowboys draft room was televised that year and as Broaddus recalls it, head coach Chan Gailey was arguing against drafting Moss at the same time scouts were lobbying for his selection.
Michael Irvin, then 32 years of age, and the Cowboys would surely have benefited from this Offensive Rookie of the Year lining up alongside him. Instead, it was Irvin’s exploits off the field that would influence the final decision on drafting Moss. Beginning in 1996, Irvin was the highest profile Cowboys player experiencing legal troubles. The Dallas Cowboys image was taking a hit and Jerry Jones knew how important his franchise’s image was to marketing and associated profits.
With advocates for and against Moss in both his ears and minutes to make a decision, Jerry Jones chose not to follow the process or his Board. As a result, the Dallas Cowboys passed on Moss and drafted a defensive lineman from the University of North Carolina, Greg Ellis. Ellis had a good, not great, career in Dallas and never earned more than one trip to the Pro Bowl. Moss has since been selected to 7 Pro Bowls.
In 2005, Broaddus was present in the draft room when Jerry Jones and the Cowboys were on the clock with the 11th overall pick in the first round. Jerry Jones again faced competing voices on which defensive lineman they should select. DeMarcus Ware from Troy University or Shawne Merriman, from the University of Maryland. The situation was further influenced by the Cowboys holding not only the 11th overall pick, but the 20th pick as well. If they selected Merriman would Ware still be there at 20? Or vice versa?
Jerry Jones’ instincts told him Ware was the pick and he wouldn’t last until their next selection at 20. Despite head coach Bill Parcells’ best attempts at changing his mind, Jerry Jones held firm and the Cowboys selected Ware. Jones learned a valuable lesson in following their process and their Board and it paid off for his franchise.
With the 12th pick, the San Diego Chargers selected Merriman. Ware remains one of the Cowboys’ and one of the NFL’s best defensive players and was recently selected to his 7th Pro Bowl. Merriman started strong earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, but has been plagued by injuries and was eventually waived midseason by the Chargers in 2010 before serving two stints with the Buffalo Bills.
Broaddus admits the National Football League and the draft process is an emotional business. Yet, those who are most successful understand the need to put emotion aside. And after listening to all stakeholders, a leader must follow their process and follow their Board.