Are you leading like a replacement ref?


The NFL is in a tight spot right now. I am sure they didn’t want to cancel the season because of a labor dispute with the regular refs, but the replacement refs are doing little more than stirring up a whole bunch of controversy.  Whether people want to admit it or not, they are having an effect on the game.

One official says touchdown, the other calls it an interception.

Here’s how:

  • Bad/erroneous calls – The great thing about instant replay is that you can watch a single play over and over again from every angle and in slow motion. Under that kind of scrutiny, the replacement refs seem to be doing a bang-up job of calling penalties when there was no infraction present.  That can give one team an unfair advantage and demoralize the team who was penalized for no reason.
  • Missed calls – the opposite side of the spectrum is when an infraction takes place that is obvious to everyone except the guys in the stripes.  Again, an unfair and demoralizing impact.
  • Wrong calls – So they saw something happen and called a penalty, but it was the wrong one or it was enforced incorrectly.  Can you guess the outcome?

Here’s the thing.  In a regular NFL season, all of these things exist, however not to the extent that they are happening with the replacement refs.  Many players take the high road and say they just have to play better than the other team and the poor officiating won’t matter.

I’m not buying it.

There is no way that this type of thing can go on and NOT have an impact on the motivation, morale and frustration levels of the players and coaches.  Here’s the completely crazy part: The NFL knows how bad it is so they sent a memo that coaches and players are not to harass the refs, and if they do they will be fined.  So, let’s set someone up for complete failure and then discipline them when they fail. Something’s not right in Denver (or any other NFL city).

Unfortunately, we see the same sort of bad/missed/wrong call craziness in leadership ranks as well, and not from replacement leaders, either.  So how can you make sure you are not leading like a replacement ref?  Try these on for size:

  • Make good calls – Your job as a leader is to set the example of what’s right, what’s wrong and what will and will not be tolerated.  You do this through your actions, your words, how you treat people and how you address inappropriate behavior. You may not have instant replay, but do your best to get all of the information to make an informed decision.
  • Don’t miss calls – Yes, there are things you don’t see, but of the things you DO see, do something about it!  It’s far too easy to look the other way to avoid conflict and controversy.  Unfortunately, when you do that you are actually CREATING more conflict and controversy for yourself down the road.  Issues are easiest to deal with when they are small and contained.
  • Admit when you’ve made a bad call – While I have not read everything pertaining the replacement refs (and there has been a lot), I have not heard them apologize for any of the calls they’ve made (or not made).  Maybe they don’t think they have done anything wrong or there is a gag order from the league, but I think some sort of recognition that there have been errors would go a long way with the players, coaches and fans.  Same thing goes for leaders.  Often we think apologizing is a sign of weakness that will undermine our authority, but the opposite is true.  When done sincerely, it only helps your credibility and trustworthiness.

To me, the bottom line is that the replacement refs (while giving people lots to talk about) are damaging the morale and engagement levels of those who make the game happen.  Leaders who practice these same tactics will have the same impact on their employees – the ones making their businesses happen.

That’s not a win-win for anybody.

Thanks for reading!

About the author: Matt Heller has spent his share of time “inside of the helmet” of football teams and organizations alike.  It gives him a very unique perspective to help leaders get the most out of themselves and their teams through training, coaching and facilitated team building.

2 thoughts on “Are you leading like a replacement ref?

  1. I hadn’t really looked at the replacement official problem like this. It’s an interesting perspective. Most people can handle winning or losing when they believe that they are competing on an even playing field. If they perform up to expectations, they win, make mistakes and risk losing. When the perception changes though, and people feel like the deck is stacked against them it does effect morale and ultimately performance. Great post, thanks.

    • I think you captured an important piece of this, Frank. It’s about the perception of fairness. We can handle losing “fair and square”, but when other factors are impacting the outcome, especially to this extent, there is bound to be some sour grapes regarding how fair the contest really is. Thanks for the comment!

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