NFL fans, listen up! When you next have a tough problem don’t punt!

“If everyone agrees out of fear or ignorance to sort of play ultraconservative, nobody really has an advantage.”                                                                                –Brian Burke

ImageBrian Burke’s comment above comes from an interesting article by Adam Himmelsbach on American football.  Himmelsbach advises adopting a field strategy that doesn’t call for punting on most fourth downs.  He has noted that unless coaches have a very small distance to cover to make a first down or their field position is compelling, they seldom try to make fourth downs but almost always punt.

However, “The punt seems to contradict football’s essence, as coaches voluntarily relinquish the ball even though they have at least one more chance to move it forward.”  So a punt is another way of declaring, “You win! I give up! No problem.”  Put another way, although some statistics show there are often better options on fourth down, “…teams continue to punt, punt, and then punt some more.”

That’s a wonderful example of and a great life lesson on risk aversion and resistance to change!

Apparently, giving up the rote practice of almost always punting on fourth down is tried only in one of two circumstances:  a football program that is so successful it is immune to criticism or a program so infirmed that the risk is of no consequence. Not very courageous, is it?  That non-strategic strategy reminds me of Janice Joplin’s wailing that, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Some freedom, huh?

Himmelsbach tells us that a few coaches have eschewed the punt. One such coach at the college level, who on having taken over a disastrously managed program, gave up punting. No decisional crossroads for this coach to ponder. The result? His team went 14-0. But how sad to think that only those trapped in the quicksand of failure, who see no great or further risk in shunning the convention of punting, consider themselves free to seek an innovative approach to a higher plane of success.

Of course, there’s a difference between being risk-tolerant and using reckless judgment.  You can go to extremes in exercising courage so that it verges on foolish, reckless bravado.  However, leaders at every level need to reward risk-taking rather than allowing any subsequent failures to morph into group-wide blaming and punishment for “bad judgment.”  Unless you hold your fire in the face of these failures after wise risk-taking, your team(s) will learn quite well all the many ways of punting.  And they will also come to hate themselves and their work.  Plus, as with most authentic cases of bad judgment, you’ll know the results when you see them!  And they bear clear differences from reasonable and courageous risk-taking.

Before we even get that far, though, the big problem is that when everyone is resistant to change, no one has an advantage. Everyone is bent on going along, enforcing the status quo.  Yet isn’t an advantage, an “opening,” a niche what business and sports are looking for?  A good and proper advantage?  Who constructs a plan for long-term success by hoping that their brand of conservatism is better than another’s?  I am not big on sports analogies, but the sports pages are full of accounts of teams losing a lead by adopting a conservative and defensive posture.  Giving all your energy to protecting what you have is a sure road to losing it!  Rather than continuing to reach for the gold ring, teams hope that by hedging their bets, the prize will fall into their laps.

ImageThere are corporate cultures that by their actions or by implication give scant nourishment to risk-taking.  Where folks simply won’t step off the curb of conformity for fear of criticism. It is imbued in the organizational DNA that it is preferable to run in place, rather than taking a risk– even a perfectly rational risk–for fear that it may not lead to a successful landing. In those companies no one wants to be seen walking away from a train wreck–better to never get on board! If a coach, for example, decides to forgo a punt in a fourth-down situation and fails, he fears that those judging him project one data point–a failed play–as a full sampling of his competence. Haven’t you seen this occur in life and in business?

ImageAt the end of the day, it comes down to balancing the hope of success and the fear of failure. Life and sports coach Dr. Joe Parent has a fascinating insight on this dynamic. He tells us that hope and fear, “…are two sides of the same coin.” That the more hopeful we are of succeeding, the more fear we feel at the prospect of losing.  For in Dr. Parent’s experience, “If there were no hope, there would be nothing to fear falling short of.” But if hope and fear are so closely related in our feelings, is the price of expressing and living in hope too great for comfort’s sake?  Are we wiser to turn away from hoping for what we can imagine of bringing about a successful outcome?

As you read this note, something has changed in your life.  It may not be a profound change, but is has surely occurred. Hopefully it causes you to wonder what form the universe will take for you. It will cause you to ask different questions, perhaps more questions, about the nature of your power to effect positive changes in your life and in your organization.    What will you observe and in what ways will it be different from how you see things today? No way of knowing.

But change and responding to that change do matter.  The issue is this:  what iteration of yourself will we see in response to situations–someone prepared to take on the psychological task of hope?  The hope of making a first down, or someone willing to punt away potential opportunities?

About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at
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