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Leadership Issues At The Heart Of Cowboys' Collapse

Cowboys staff and players look on in calm-yet-puzzled detachment from the sidelines.
Cowboys staff and players look on in calm-yet-puzzled detachment from the sidelines.

In the NFL today, lamenting a "lack of discipline" isn’t simply a part of the obligatory excuses after a loss. It’s the diagnosis for anything and everything that goes wrong on and off the field. In reality, the term is so vague that practicing to improve a team’s discipline would look like … what, exactly?

Installing a stiffer fine system? Canceling an off-day and scheduling a full-pad practice? Stressing the importance of getting things "exactly right"? Perhaps combo drills focusing on the finer points of a three-point-stance?

If you look at the most successful teams in any sport, you will find a common theme within the team. Often, it is called leadership. The role of leadership, be it formal or informal, is to influence a group or team to achieve a common goal, particularly in the face of adversity. Leadership inspires a group of individuals to come together as a team and play to the best of their ability – even when they are losing.

Leadership in team sports is often confused with a team having one selected or anointed leader – that one rah-rah guy who everybody looks to when things go wrong. But true leadership for high performance teams is most often shared leadership.

Shared leadership is the key driver of long term team success. Every player on the team takes ownership and responsibility for the overall performance of the team. No one panics, starts pointing fingers or hangs his head at the first sign of adversity. In fact, teams with shared leadership strengthen their resolve and focus at the first sign of adversity and unite as one. They are mentally tough. They support each other and take care of their own responsibilities to ensure the success of the team.

Now think about the Cowboys. How can tallying up the number of tipped passes that led to interceptions be about taking ownership and responsibility? Look at the amount of finger-pointing in the secondary or the body language on the sidelines during the game. Mentally tough in the face of adversity? Not this team. Shared leadership? Please, child.

Importantly, leadership is inextricably linked to accountability. This means accepting responsibility for the outcomes expected of you, both good and bad. You don’t blame someone else. You don’t fault external factors. If you do not take responsibility for your actions, you become the exact opposite of a leader: a victim. A victim is passive. A victim is acted upon by others. Leadership is active. Leadership is about taking the initiative to achieve the outcome expected of you.

Leadership is about forcing your will on the other team, it’s not about ‘taking what the other team gives you’. Leadership is about doing something when it’s apparent for everybody watching the game that even the Jaguars have figured out when the Cowboys are going to blitz. Being a victim is maintaining a calm-yet-puzzled look on the sidelines while sending yet another blitz on third-and-long and hoping that if you keep doing the same things, over and over again, everything will turn out OK.

Without shared leadership, shared responsibility and shared accountability, teams routinely disintegrate under pressure, mistakes abound, penalties pile up, blame gets assigned elsewhere, lack of trust pervades the team. Sound familiar?

Today, the Cowboys see themselves as victims. Victims of Romo’s injury, victims of debatable calls by the refs, victims of too many tipped balls resulting in interceptions, victims of too many penalties and victims of some unlucky bounces. Oh, and victims of HOF-bound David Garrard who recorded a perfect passer rating of 158.3 against the rudderless Cowboys.

The Cowboys need to get back into a leadership mentality. What they need is someone who can instill a new sense of cohesiveness and purpose, helping the team attain a mental toughness that helps each player to remain calm and focused under stress. Someone who will again give the team a high sense of self-belief and an unshakable faith that as a team they control their own destiny. The disaster in Dallas is not all Wade Phillips' fault, but he is not the man who will make the Cowboys a functional team again.

Jerry Jones, the ball is in your court.

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