A Lesson on Change Leadership. . . from a High School Wrong-Way-Play

The infamous 1964 Jim Marshall Wrong Way Play has been redeemed.

Ranked #5 in NFL Film’s 10 Top Worst Plays, the Running-the-Wrong-Way playbook has been rewritten by Fairfield, CA High School football Team Captain, Kah'Ron Thrower!  The story landed on my iPhone’s news stream last Saturday evening while watching the Huskers battle an undefeated Minnesota team. It wasn’t pretty and I welcomed the distraction!

Jim Marshall was one of the Vikings’ historic Purple People Eaters whose motto was “Meet You At The Quarterback.” Today, Marshall still ranks 2nd in the NFL for most consecutive starts – surpassed only by my Chicago Bear’s rival, Brett Favre.

But in 1964, Jim ran the wrong way and he is still remembered for this, rather than for his significant accomplishments.  55 years later, High school senior Kha’Ron Thrower provides a leadership best practice for all of us who get confused watching a colleague scoring for the wrong team.  When his teammate intercepted the ball and ran for a Pick-6 – towards the wrong end zone - Kha’Ron ran 50 yards to tackle his teammate on the 10-yard line, saving the Falcons from a safety.

I reached out to Kha’Ron in Fairfield, CA to learn more. (Click the image below to watch the play)

I WAS CONFUSED AS WELL!

When asked about the play and what he was thinking when he saw his teammate running the wrong way, he responded, “I was confused as well and didn’t believe he was actually going to keep going.”  

SO WHAT DOES A HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PLAY HAVE TO DO WITH CHANGE LEADERSHIP?

One of the most predictable dynamics of change is to expect people to experience profound confusion, even the most talented A-Team members.  And that’s precisely what happened when the football changed possession as a result of an unexpected turnover, both in 1964 and 2019.

In John Kotter’s Harvard Business Review Classic, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Kotter describes “most of the employees with whom I talked were either confused or alienated.” 

For over 25 years Jim Marshall’s “Wrong Way” play has been an example of the often collective confusion leaders and team members experience in the midst of change.  During our Riding the Rapids of Change workshops, participants watch a video of the 1964 Wrong Way Play and without fail the room is filled with “oh no’s” and “he’s running the wrong way!”  Then I ask, “It's not just Jim Marshall, there’s a whole team out there.  Why didn’t any of his teammates tackle him!?!”  In my leadership playbook, that's the better question. 

Without fail, participants’ heads nod and they begin to share workplace examples of scoring-for-the-wrong-team. Over time, these are the top 3:

  1. Hoarding information. This happens teammates are confused into believing the old adage “knowledge is power” and assume their being the information go-to will protect their perceived value, resulting in job-security.
  2. “Been there. Done That.” This is when colleagues are confused into believing that falling back on the cynical mentality of “that’ll never work” or “we tried already that and it didn’t work” is actually helpful.  It isn’t.    
  3. Bad-mouthing, gossiping, and various silent eye-rolling behaviors. This happens when people are confused into believing it’s more helpful to indirectly criticize who and what they disagree with rather than communicate their concerns directly.  This is the most frequently cited culture-killing, score-for-the-wrong-team behavior that breaks-down trust and fuels disrespect.

One of the most interesting aspects of team-members scoring-for-the-wrong-team at work is how almost 100% of the time, fellow team-mates observe the self-destructive behavior and, like Marshall’s team-mates from 1964, they fail to help their fellow team-member see they are running in the wrong direction and fail to stop the destructive behavior.  

ALL THAT WENT THROUGH MY HEAD IS I GOTTA GET HIM BEFORE HE GETS THERE

But Kha’Ron demonstrated Six Change Leadership Mindsets that resulted in a best-in-class response. 

 

  1. Change Leadership Mindset #1: Focus on Clarity - Team Goals: When the situation changed and it was clear a team member was confused, Kha’Ron brought clarity by focusing on his team’s goal and the direction provided by the team leader, his coach.  

“I was excited because I saw [my teammate] make the right read as the play started, and then do what the coach taught us all week. And as the play was taking place I saw him sink right under the #1 receiver and I didn’t think the QB was going to make the throw.  But once he did all I was thinking was my brother was gonna run it in for 8!”

  1. Change Leadership Mindset #2: Demonstrate Personal Agency When Things Go Wrong. When the situation changed and others stood stood frozen in confusion, Kha’Ron demonstrated the personal agency to bring about the best result for the team.

“But as my teammate caught the ball, he kinda got spun around and I thought he was going to turn around again.  I tried to get his attention. The crowd was cheering as he was running the wrong way.  I saw my coach trying to get him to turn around, and all that went through my head is I gotta get him before he gets there.”

  1. Change Leadership Mindset #3: Take the Best Action for the Team, even When Surrounded By Inaction. When most stood watching, Kha’Ron quickly took action to bring about the best team result– even at the cost of upsetting his team-mate.

USA Today reports: Thrower ran 50 yards to bring down his teammate at the 10-yard line with a clutch tackle. 

I asked Kha’Ron what happened with his teammate after the play. “As I made the tackle he was clearly upset and unaware of his mistake. He didn’t understand until I and #10 of the other team told him he had run the wrong way and the crowd became aware of what happened and came to realize that I stopped him to prevent a safety”

Former Medtronics CEO and current Harvard professor Bill George calls this Courage to Transform.  George asks, "When you see the company going the wrong way, do you have the courage to do something about it?" Certainly, Kha'Ron did!

Change Leadership Mindset #4: Treat Team Members with Respect

Instead of throwing his team-mate under the bus, Kha’Ron looked at the big picture and publicly showed respect.  His tweet was featured on USA Today, “That was my li'l bro’s first interception. Noting that he’s only played 2.5 games due to injury going into that game and that was his first game back off another injury so I don’t really blame him and that had nothing to do with us losing. Li’l bro is fine and he’ll bounce back 🖤

  1. Change Leadership Mindset #5: Show Humility through Humor

Many years ago l learned about change leadership and humor through the story of Ronald Reagan being taken to the operating room after an assassination attempt – the most horrific example of situations changing and the need for leadership.  Before being wheeled into the operating room to remove a bullet lodged in his chest, Reagan cracked a joke to his terrified wife, Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”  Then, according to the head surgeon, Dr. Joseph Giordano, “As [the President] was lifted from the gurney to the operating table, he looked around and joked, "Please tell me you're all Republicans." Giordano, a liberal Democrat, replied, "Mr. President, we're all Republicans today." 

Similarly, Kha'Ron cracked me up! After Kha’Ron’s post of the video had been featured on USA Today, Bleacher Report, CBSSports, NBCNews and many more media outlets, he describes the magnificent play as both a “Sports Center Top-10-Play and Sports Center NOT-a-Top-10-Play.” LOL

  1. Change Leadership Mindset #6: Choose to See Yourself as a Leader

Kha’Ron and I exchanged a handful of messages about the play, and in closing, I wrote to encourage him.  “One more thing. . . not only do you have a strong mind - urgently seeing the crisis and choosing to act - but also you have a wonderful heart.  How you wrote about your teammate just coming back from injury and it being his first interception, your publicly extending grace to him, and also the graciousness you've shown to me in this quick exchange of messages.  It's important you know this about yourself:  Strong mind.  Courageous action.  Good heart.  This is what leadership is all about.”

 To which he responded:

“Yes ma’am, as a captain I will always want the best for my teammates.  As student athletes we go through a lot. That’s normal to me just how I was raised up and I do my best to instill that in my teammates.”

These six Change Leadership Mindsets translate to from the field to the workplace.  Consider how you might apply any one and raise the bar on your team's results focus:

Six Change Leadership Mindsets:

#1: Focus on Clarity - Team Goals

#2: Demonstrate Personal Agency When Things Go Wrong

#3: Take the Best Action for the Team, even When Surrounded By Inaction

#4: Treat Team Members with Respect

#5: Show Humility through Humor

#6: Choose to See Yourself as a Leader

Thank you, Kha’Ron, for rewriting the Wrong Way Play Book!  I wish for you the absolute best as you complete your senior year, and thank you for this long-awaited Wrong Way Play Made Right!  I've been waiting a long time to change the ending of this story!

If you are stuck and need help moving past the confusion of change our Riding the Rapids of Change may help you break through confusion and focus on results. Our methods are time-proven and incorporate scientific techniques for helping you break through confusion and focus on results.  Click here to get started.

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