Welcome back to “The 33 Strategies of War” by Robert Greene, as seen through the hidden lessons of sports. Last week, we digested The Death Ground Strategy, finishing our first course, “Self-Directed Warfare”.
Now, let us begin the second course, “Organizational Team Warfare”, the first dish being…
THE COMMAND AND CONTROL STRATEGY
Unless you live in a cave, you know this situation well. You’ve been hired to complete an important project. You recruit a group of creative people. Everyone has ideas they want to contribute, including your investors, reducing your brilliant plans to rubble. The project ends up okay, but you know it could have been amazing shit had they followed your vision. Too many egos. Too many ideas. There’s a saying in sports. There’s only one ball to go around.
On January 27th, 2000, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft made history by trading a first round pick for a coach. “We can bring in a man that I feel certain can do something, rather than the uncertainty of a draft choice,” said Kraft, as he robotically shook hands with his new coach, Bill Bellichick. This was Bellichick’s second head coaching job. He had failed badly with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-1994, compiling an unimpressive 36-44 record (his last season, a 5-11 disaster that cost him his job).
Great coaches like Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells and Vince Lombardi were emotional men, who were frequently seen screaming, putting their guts on the field. Bellichick resembled an accountant or a librarian. He was short, showed about as much emotion as a statue, and began his regime by saying, ”we’ve got too many people who are overweight”. Bill proceeded to suspend and even cut several players he considered too fat.
But, the 2000 season resulted in the identical 5-11 record Bill had amassed with the Browns. This included a sodomizing loss to one of the worse teams in the league, the Detroit Lions by the score of 34-9. Had Kraft made a terrible mistake?
Bill’s second season was going nowhere fast, beginning with a loss to the worst team in the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals. But the second game got a lot worse. Their franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, was pulverized by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis (Kraft had signed Bledsoe to a 10 year, $100 million extension), and now Bledsoe’s chest was filled with blood in ER. The face of the Patriots would be out indefinitely. Their backup took over. One, Tom Brady, the 199th pick of the 2000 draft. Brady passed for a lousy 46 yards (the previous season, he passed for 6). The Pats lost, beginning the season 0-2, a death knell in football.
Bellichick and his offensive coordinator Charlie Weis would make things simple for Brady, changing the game plan for his barely average arm strength (unlike Bledsoe, who could throw a football into the parking lot). Bellichick would simplify whatever defense Brady was facing to the point where a 3 year old could understand it (Bledsoe was a veteran and didn’t require this type of babysitting).
Somehow, the Pats would eke out a 5-5 record by the time Bledsoe was ready to return to his $10 million a year job. But Bellichick surprised everyone by sticking with Brady, whom he called “the guy with the hot hand”. Bellichick added, “you always try to know what you need and I think that’s one of the things that Tom does best”.
Somehow, the Patriots would continue winning with Brady, and no names guys like Troy Brown, David Patten, Kevin Faulk and on defense, with undersized linebackers Teddy Bruschi, Larry Izzo and Mike Vrabel. Smart, fast athletes that Bellichick would call “coaches on the field”. They weren’t the best defense or offense, but they would play smart and do just enough to win. In meetings, Bellichick would break down film (something he did since he was 7 years old) and during practice, he would quiz his guys.
And if any guy gave a dumb answer, Bellichick would call him out and explain in detail the mechanism of this guy’s stupidity, sometimes for an entire meeting, using film examples, etc. Bill didn’t raise his voice. Yet, having your intelligence torn apart like poodle in the hands of a grizzly bear was kind of humiliating.
Afterwards, Bellichick would calmly add, “don’t be that guy”.
After the meeting, other guys would castigate “that guy” further, like Bellichick would. This would force guys to quiz each other and “simplifying” things until Sunday. Making intelligent decisions became a first priority – which was, of course, the key to their victories.
The Pats were physically inferior to most teams, but they were so prepared mentally that they always gave themselves a chance to win. Like Bellichick himself. Undersized. Analytical. Poised. It was as if Bellichick had cloned himself in 53 guys. They even began to speak like him, quizzing each other, testing each other’s knowledge of that week’s game plan. The same team that was declared D.O.A. at the beginning of the season would end the season 11-5, with a second seed in the playoffs.
The Patriots were so prepared mentally, that they actually depended on a key mistake via their opponents – and capitalized on it. During AFC Championship, the Pats were up 24-17 against the home team Pittsburgh Steelers. When Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart mistakenly threw the ball in the direction of safety Lawyer Milloy, who intercepted mid-field to seal the victory and send the Pats to the Superbowl, where they shocked the world and won.
But this would only be their first. The Pats would replenish their teams in similar fashions, with guys you either never heard of (Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel) or guys whose careers you thought were over (Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison, Junior Seau). They would all act and speak like Bellichick as if his soul possessed all these men. You never saw Patriots making dumb mistakes or shooting themselves in the foot. They were athletes with superior minds. Like John Malkovich’s dream in “Being John Malkovich” where everyone is Malkovich – except, everyone was Bellichick.
The Patriots would become the greatest team of the decade, the only dynasty in football since the Cowboys in the 90’s and the 49ers in the 80’s. Robert Kraft spent his first round pick wisely (Kraft likely saw Bellichick as a clone of himself, sharing the same philosophies, etc. Bill was the Patriots defensive coordinator three years earlier and the two were seen talking together frequently).
In an era of impatience and titanic egos, how did a guy who showed about as much emotion as a strip mall turn a mediocre franchise into the only dynasty in the last 10 years?
This began with Tom Brady, who enjoyed a successful career in Michigan but was widely ignored by the NFL. Brady was extremely talented, but humble and willing to learn, unlike most athletes. Whereas Drew Bledsoe was a veteran, stuck in his ways (and had been blasted too many times to make the right decisions). Brady was Bellichick on the field. Opposing teams are not afraid of Brady’s arm strength, they’re afraid of Brady’s “decision making”.
After Brady, Bellichick would clone himself in Teddy Bruschi, who was also ignored by the NFL during the draft. Bruschi was trusted to make audibles on defense. His football mind was uncanny. Other teams were not concerned about Teddy’s size (he was barely 6 ft tall), but of his “decision making”.
You would not see flashy players in the Patriots regime. And if you did, that flashy player had been humbled or considered “washed up”. This is when Bellichick would swap him up. When that guy’s mind was ready to be a virgin again and filled with Bellichick juice. Such was the case with Randy Moss who was traded by the Oakland Raiders for a fourth pick.
The first year as a Patriot, Moss would break the single season touchdown record, playing the Bellichick way. When Moss turned into a prima donna again, Bellichick simply let him go.
As Mr.Greene says, “today’s world is complex and chaotic, it is harder than ever to exercise control through a chain of command. You cannot supervise everything yourself. You cannot keep your eye on everyone. Being seen as a dictator will do you harm. But if you submit to complexity and let go of your chain of command, chaos will consume you”.
The solution is to find the Bellichick inside you. Simplify things. Shorten your reports. Eliminate pointless meetings that no one really pays attention to anyway. And hire people who share your philosophy. If a person is technically brilliant but doesn’t share your philosophy, that person will rip your team apart like a loaf of bread. This is why Bellichick released Randy Moss without hesitation. Team leadership is as fragile as women’s panties. You cannot be a fascist or democratic. Either extremes will rot your group. This balance is a kind of dance, a Tai Chi-like push and pull that is required for groups today.
KEYS TO ENGAGEMENT
No one likes authority anymore. No one likes to be bossed around. Today, people think they know everything. Let’s face it, we all think we should be running the show and feel inferior if we don’t. This is why, in a group, leaders frequently give too much creative input, just to appease people. But giving too much away violates the most sacred rule in leadership, “Unity of Command”.
Without “Unity of Command”, your group is like a body without a head. It doesn’t matter if this body can run faster than a horse or whistle with its asshole, it has no direction, no logic. Much a like a group with a powerless leader.
Put the head back on and the body has purpose. You are the head and the group is the body. You restore it’s logic and direction.
The Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Dallas Mavericks this week because Kevin Durant too frequently yields to Russell Westbrook. The Thunder had the talent to win, but the team was split into a “Black Swan”-like schizophrenia. You can’t succeed if you’re fighting people on your team as well as your opponent. As we saw in the film, Black Swan and White Swan dies at the end.
Kevin Durant, the NBA scoring leader, relinquishes his “unity of command” to Russell Westbrook way too much and the team is run by two heads – instead of one. Durant is considered a nice guy in the league who doesn’t know when to be selfish and “take over”, like Michael Jordan, who knew when to allow his team room to operate and when to “take over”. That balance was key to Jordan’s 6 championships. He never allowed the team to consume him.
This is not to say, you want “yes” men. If someone agrees with everything you say, they are kissing your ass, which is dangerous. Bellichick actually rewards his staff for challenging him and proving him wrong. Really stare at someone’s history before you hire them. Not what they’re good at, but where they’ve been, and for how long. This person could be the political backstabber in your group. It only takes one bad apple to confuse your message and destroy it’s simplicity.
Bellichick likes to say things like, if you do this, you will win, if you do this, you will lose. Keeping things very simple. In the end, Bill is a simple man who’s messages are clear. There is no time wasted interpreting Bill’s message. Since, the speed of your message is crucial. Speed and simplicity are best friends.
This was evident during the 2008 season, when the Patriots lost Tom Brady to a season ending injury and turned to journeyman, Matt Cassell, who still led New England to 11-5 record.
Or when the press accused Bellichick of piling on points, to which he replied, ”my offense is there to score”.
Of course, Bill’s direct and simple ways were never more clearer than when a Spanish journalist asked him to make a comment and he replied, “I can’t. I don’t speak Spanish. Not one word of it”.
There is no value in relinquishing “Unity of Command”. Your group is dead without it. If you are offered a job where you share the leadership, turning it down or accepting a lower position might be a better idea. It will save you lots of time and heartache. “Unity of Command” is a river than can only flow one way, yours or someone else’s.
Next week’s delicious course will be “The Controlled Chaos Strategy”.