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Why leaders need to know the difference between teams and rosters

It’s not autumn just yet, but professional football has already begun. It’s true that players have not yet taken the field. In fact, they’ve only just begun their preseason training. Yet football has begun because the chatter around which team will win the Super Bowl this season has already begun.

Trouble is, in many cases that chatter is off the mark. The reason? Most of it is talk about rosters, not teams. While it may sound like semantics, there’s a very big difference -- one that affects you as a leader, even if you’re not a football fan.

You may never have watched a Green Bay Packers game in your life, but chances are you know Aaron Rodgers. Maybe you’ve seen him in a State Farm ad (he’s been one of their celebrity endorsers for years). Or perhaps you saw him as one of the guest hosts of "Jeopardy" these past few months (and one of the most popular in the show’s search for a permanent replacement after Alex Trebek’s passing).

There’s a reason Rodgers lands such coveted non-football gigs. He’s good, very good, and known for being an effective and likeable leader. He’s three times been named the league’s Most Valuable Player, and many feel he is the key to the Packers winning the Super Bowl in the coming season -- if he plays, that is (more on this in a minute).

There are those that think the Packers could win the next Super Bowl even without Rodgers. Green Bay has a strong and deep roster, a collection of players across various positions whose resumes and stats stack up as among the best in the league. Confirming an elite quarterback like Rodgers to that roster makes it a sweeter bet.

But there’s a problem, and the problem goes right to the heart of the matter and the difference between a great roster and a great team. At the heart of that problem are two things that make the heart of any organization beat and allow it to compete effectively: leadership and culture.

Were you to land on Planet Football for the first time and gaze at the basic facts about the Packers, you might wonder what the heck I’m talking about here. Especially because officially, contractually, Rodgers is already on the roster. Indeed, Rodgers has led the Packers as quarterback for more than 13 seasons, including to one Super Bowl win and numerous playoff appearances.

But he and the team’s owners are at odds. According to reports, Rodgers is disgruntled. He feels disrespected. He thinks the culture around him is a bad one. And while last year he led his team to its second straight division title, there’s a strong case to be made that, unlike previous seasons, this past one he was doing it largely for himself -- to prove his worth to the owners, to put an exclamation point on the respect he feels he’s due.

Even after last year’s success, the Packers have hinted something less than a commitment to Rodgers as their quarterback. So there was speculation about his future for months, with Rodgers even saying publicly that he wanted a trade. And while he and management appear to have settled the question for the short term, there’s scant evidence that the core problems are being addressed or will be healed any time soon, if ever.

This is a problem for those who would forecast a mighty Packers team. Their predictions hinge on a roster that would include the great Aaron Rodgers, leading the same team once more. But it’s not the same team. It’s just the roster.

This situation is, in part, because Rodgers feels undervalued as a leader. What’s his incentive to do more than walk through the paces of his job -- being the best he can be athletically but without the shared purpose of the team as the ultimate motivator? And if the underlying culture is broken, how long will it take to for the cracks in it to widen into chasms and all that talent to add up to a net negative value? And that’s where this little sports analogy comes full circle to a problem facing all leaders -- in any time, but especially in uncertain times.

Most of us still face two blind spots when it comes to understanding what makes an organization competitive and adaptable -- not just now and then, but on an ongoing basis.

  1. We assume the leader to be the equivalent of leadership: the hero, the key playmaker, the brilliant innovator and strategist, and all of it all the time. The truth? Leadership is at its best when it’s cultural. One star, even a roster full of stars, isn’t enough to change that truth, which brings us to blind spot No. 2.
  2. Culture isn’t some mysteriously arrived at future outcome. It’s not some past heyday, either. Culture is who you are and what you are doing as a team right now. If your right-now version is unsettled, it’s guaranteed to hasten your organization's struggles, if not its demise, when the next wave of uncertainty arrives.

An organization’s ability to thrive has everything to do with the kind of environment in which those assets are encouraged and allowed to rise to their potential, or not. Culture and leadership make or break that environment, no matter what things might look like on paper.

 

Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2021. He’s also the author of two award-winning books: "The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity" and "A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress." As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, "Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times," was released June 1, 2021.

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