Family physician, author, blogger, speaker, physician leader.

Deflategate, Antennagate, Human Nature, and Leadership Lessons

Leadership lessons are often a trial by fire. An unexpected discovery and problem and sometimes even a disaster occurs. Media pounces on the story. Someone caused the problem. How did others not see? Were they complicit? As the story unfolds, theories abound as the cause of the problem is not initially obvious or clear. Many premature conclusions. When there is no reasonable answer offered quickly, particularly in today’s 24/7 news cycle, it is human nature to assume something negative. Someone did something with malicious intent. Someone should have known. The problem should have been anticipated and prevented. The fact that it was not means someone was up to no good, was covering up, or acted deliberately towards this outcome. Even when an alternative explanation grounded in facts or science is offered, will it be enough to dispel this perception?

Many of us want to believe that leaders are omniscient even when situations arise that are truly unforeseeable going forward but obvious retrospect. We see this repeatedly in history from the space shuttle mishaps of Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) and the investigation into the 9/11 attacks. The public needs to judge for itself – was the unexpected discovery or problem foreseeable or unforeseeable?

The recent “controversy” over the New England Patriots Deflategate and Apple iPhone 4’s Antennagate show how unpredictable outcomes can color or taint the public’s view of an organization and its reputation. Decreasing these outcomes continues to be a key issue and learning for leaders:  Know what you do not know.
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2015 AFC Championship – New England – Deflategate

Shortly after the 2015 NFL AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, it was discovered that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots were underinflated against league regulations. An underinflated football can allow players to grip the ball better especially during inclement wet weather like that of the AFC championship.

Media frenzy! Plenty of former NFL football players and sports analysts marched out the mantra of conspiracy, cheating, and deflategate. Head coach Bill Belichick must have known. Golden boy quarterback Tom Brady, how could he not feel the difference? A difference of 2 pounds per square inch should be obvious for future hall of famer, right? Even though air only accounts for 2.5% of the total weight of the football and deflating it would result in a weight change of 1 to 2 grams! Less than the weight of a ping pong ball. Yet despite former NFL quarterback Steve Young and others noting that Tom Brady would not have an advantage with an underinflated ball, the accusations remained.

The only way this phenomenon of 11 out of 12 footballs being underinflated could be explained best by intentional cheating.

So naturally the media was upset that at the first news conference that Belichick and Brady admitted no knowledge of systematic football underinflation. Though without any proof, increasingly more articles proclaimed that the only explanation could be:

  • the New England Patriots may have intentionally deflated several of the footballs used in their 45-7 AFC championship win over the Indianapolis Colts has gained traction…Which is to say, it’s sounding more and more like the truth.

Yet at this point, the evidence is scant. Though the simple answer is someone was responsible to deflate the footballs, is it possible that we simply don’t know what we don’t know? It is human nature to try an make quick associations and identification of patterns even in seemingly random events. We assume causation in times of association. We feel like we can predict and see trends in the stock market even though it is not predictable. In a world that is increasingly complex we search for simple solutions when that often is the wrong conclusion.

Belichick surprised the media with his own investigation and second news conference which claimed that the loss of air pressure was due to how the Patriots prepared the footballs and how the temperature of the air and time would explain the observation of deflated footballs. Scientists find his theory believable and others not as much. As head coach and in many ways as CEO of an organization, he cannot possibly know every specific detail and action of every person part of the football team. So until this story, he was oblivious to how footballs are handled before game day and during game day. His Seattle Seahawks counterpart head coach Pete Carroll said it best when asked the same question:

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  • “I’m much better versed today [regarding football air pressure] than I was a week or so ago. Things come up and we have to face things sometimes for the first time and first time realization. That maybe everybody would thinks you should have seen it before, but I never checked on the whole process of how our footballs were handled until this week. I can empathize with coach Belichick in that same way. I never have so I can understand how he never has either.
  • It is something that is part of the equipment standards that are carried out by our people in the organization. This is one that has not been looked at maybe as intently as it is now, but I know every step of it now.
  • My awareness is up and I’m sure there is and everyone else around the game in particular will never be the same as well. Other than that, It is an unfortunate situation that they have to deal with right know and I’m sure they are doing everything they can now to deal with it properly….Our awareness has been elevated….This is just another opportunity for us to grow.
  • We don’t have everything nailed yet, but we will eventually get it done when the time comes.”

In other words no matter how well prepared you are or how experienced you are, you can’t know and see everything. Yet you, particularly if you are a leader, are expected to know, see, and anticipate everything. This deflategate story is very reminiscent of the Apple antenngate story that swirled around the launch of iPhone 4.

Apple iPhone 4 Launch – Antennagate

The new antenna design of the iPhone 4 which encompassed the entire perimeter of the phone also made it vulnerable to dropped calls which was dubbed by the media as the “death grip”. For over 3 weeks, Apple and CEO Steve Jobs were silent as questions and negative pressure dominated Apple’s latest product launch.

When Jobs finally addressed the issue in a press conference, he provided data (only 0.55 percent of customer service calls were related to phone call reception, 1.7 percent of iPhone 4s have been turned compared to 6 percent return during iPhone 3GS launch). He acknowledged that the phenomenon of a dropped call did occur when one held the phone a particular way and that other competitor phone has similar issues as well. The simple fix was to offer free iPhone 4 cases for those interested.

Despite all of the testing prior to iPhone 4 launch, there was no way Jobs and Apple could have anticipated such a media frenzy. As Jobs and Apple know, an issue can be blown out of proportion and emotions can run high when perception distorts reality.

Learnings for Leaders

You don’t know what you don’t know. Being a leader is a very humbling experience. Plenty of responsibility and accountability and yet one, no matter how much of a control freak one is, you cannot control or see everything. You are not omniscient. You rely on systems, processes, and policies and hiring and training the right people to do the job. When something happens, which invariably happens, as a leader you must step forward, understand the situation, and not reach premature conclusions. This can be particularly difficult in today’s media environment. To ensure as a leader that you have the best chance at hearing potential issues before they become problems, you need to be accessible, open to feedback, humble, and always willing to learn and ask questions. Assume nothing. A great book on this subject is Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen


What Will the NFL Do?

As part of the investigation, the NFL cannot even verify the pressure of the footballs when the referees inspected them for the game.

What is the truth of what actually happened? Like medical errors or aviation mishaps, typically it is a chain of events that caused the outcome and not typically just one person or one event.

The NFL will penalize the Patriots for violation of the rule even as the NFL itself is unable to prove malicious intent because its processes, systems, and oversight were not at the level needed to monitor compliance of this rule.

Like the Patriots and Apple, the NFL did not know what it did not know.

It is unlikely this type of issue will come up again as a result for any NFL team.

Go Pats!


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