Leadership and the Onside Kick

Posted on Harvard Business Review: February 8, 2010 11:55 AM

What drives a leader to make the kind of creative, game-changing decision that New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton came up with in the locker room last night while The Who were cranking out 12 minutes of the same-old, same-old during the Super Bowl half time show?

It's hard to be sure in Payton's case, but, strangely enough, ambivalence may play a key role. As in: The greater a leader's ambivalence toward a strategic situation, the greater the likelihood he or she will respond by taking action in a novel, risky way.

Payton's decision was definitely both novel and risky: When the Saints came back onto the field, they refused to simply kick the ball to the opposition, as has happened at the beginning of every other half in Super Bowl history. Instead, they tried their very best to keep it for themselves. The onside-kick trick worked (barely), and New Orleans ended up with the ball. The Saints went on to get a touchdown that eventually led them to their win over the Colts.

The question of why some leaders come up with bold ideas in tough situations and some don't has been an obsession for many researchers. Nils Plambeck of HEC in France and Klaus Weber of Northwestern studied the attitudes and actions of 104 German CEOs who were confronting a complex strategic issue a few years back—namely, the looming enlargement of the European Union. The researchers found that if a CEO simultaneously viewed the coming event as potentially both positive and negative—and if those simultaneous convictions were intensely held—the leader was more likely to take organizational action in response. Not only that, the action was likely to be of greater scope, novelty, and riskiness.

"A top executive's ambivalence about an issue does not get in the way of reacting," Plambeck and Weber write in a recent issue of Organization Science, nor does it "paralyze organizational action responses." Instead, the leader's view of a situation as both good and bad creates what psychologists call "emotional arousal" and heightened alertness. That's partly because CEOs, like the rest of us, typically are quick to categorize developments as good or bad, black or white. When an issue shapes up as both positive and negative, there's a resulting "sense of unusualness" that stimulates "a more creative and deliberate" search for responses, Plambeck and Weber write.

So was there something about the Saints' situation at half time last night that seemed both positive and negative? Or was Payton already in a state of "emotional arousal" from simply having taken New Orleans to its first Super Bowl? Either way, his sense of the unusualness of the situation led to very creative search for solutions. That's more than can be said for the remnants of The Who, who found no particular reason to do anything creative despite the unusualness of their playing in front of tens of millions of people. More next time.

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