We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Burn your boats
23 January 2011, 15:50
Filed under: Leadership | Tags: , , , ,

One of the reasons I enjoy American football is that you get to see men react to stress and difficult situations. Sometimes, you get to see true leadership and that’s why I write about it today.

Rex Ryan is loud and foul-mouthed. He’s grossly overweight and rarely exhibits grace or class. So, he’s not at all the kind of leader that I’ve striven to be. Of course, I wouldn’t be writing about him if he wasn’t a brilliant and capable leader. He excels at an emotional form of leadership that absolutely brings out the best in his team. Sally Jenkins wrote a brilliant article today on Ryan. In mid-December, having lost two games in a row, Ryan’s Jets were in trouble.

At the hotel on the night before the game Ryan delivered a fierce, choked exhortation in which he described the desperate expedition of conquistador Hernan Cortes, who sailed off to conquer Mexico in 1519. Cortes was so determined not to retreat, Ryan said, that he ordered his men to set fire to their ships. “They burned their boats!” Ryan shouted.

The following day, when the Jets and Steelers were tied at 10 at halftime, they took up the chant. “Burn the boats,” the Jets said. “Burn the boats.” Final score: Jets, 22-17.

They knew it was juvenile. They knew it was worthy of a high school locker room. Burn the boats? Fine. “We still got to get back to the airport, though,” Ellis notes, wryly. Yet they ate it up anyway, and have been using it ever since.

“Burn your boats,” Ellis says. “Definitely. It means go out there and leave nothing behind. I’m not going to say this is war, but basically, just go out there and don’t intend on coming back. Just leave it all on the field.”

There are many ways to lead and many manifestations of the effectiveness other than just wins and losses. Seeing Ryan’s men dropping their guard and giving into the emotion is stirring. It’s example of leadership that anyone can learn from – the passion Ryan exhibits and its infectiousness is hard to pass up.

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