What Drafting Quarterbacks Can Teach Us About Picking Good Leaders

The 2012 NFL Draft took place over the past few days. The first selection in the draft is often a Quarterback (4 years in a row now, and 12 of the past 15), and players available at this position receive disproportionate attention from both teams and viewers. It makes sense, as it’s rare for a team to win a Super Bowl without an elite QB. Teams often overvalue QBs in the draft – 3-4 usually go in the first round; roughly half of which become average starters (never mind stars). Compared to many other sports, football (when a team is on offense) sees a hierarchical structure where there is a position that is the natural leader. The QB often has to call plays at the line, or make adjustments when seeing the defense. He’s the only skill player to handle the ball on every play.

A Quarterback is colloquially called a “field general”, and as the nickname indicates, there are parallels to the leader of any organization. Picking both can be problematic, but there are lessons from drafting QBs that can apply to any organization. These lessons are especially important for smaller organizations such as non-profits, where the (opportunity) cost of making a mistake is magnified.

What Makes a Great Quarterback or Leader?
During the first round on Thursday, I tweeted about how the top two picks, Quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, scored high in number of college starts and pass completion percentage, which are both usually good indicators of pro success.

Writer John Lopez elaborates on this, with his 26/27/60 rule. What this means is a QB prospect who scores a 26 on the Wonderlic aptitude test (administered to prospects), starts at least 27 college games (just over 2 full seasons), and completes 60% of his passes stands a good chance of success in the pros. I’d suggest the 60% threshold needs to be raised as college offenses use more and more short, high percentage passes, but the principle is sound.

Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck, first overall pick and likely success story.
Flickr/Michael Li

Each one of these points to key attribute:

Aptitude and Willingness to Learn
There is learning on the job in every position; a willingness and ability to acknowledge this and work to address this is essential. In a sense, it’s self-awareness (or humility) – the ability to recognize that you still have lots to learn, regardless of accolades or success.

Relevant Leadership Experience

An easy trap to get in to is confuse types of experience, assuming that people can progress linearly from one level (or type of job) to another and produce a similar quality of work. A better way to look at it is how relevant previous experience is to the role in question. You can see this in politics, where many politicians are successful chief executives at more than one level of government (while many legislators struggle to become good executives, for example). Number of starts for QBs captures this; playing QB at one level is usually pretty similar to playing QB at the next one up (unless you run the option offense).

Decision-Making Ability
It’s not enough to have similar experience; it’s important to have demonstrated success. Completion percentage is the easiest way to measure this for a QB. Did they complete the pass they were trying to make?

The 2012 QB Class and What We Can Learn
Six QBs were selected in the first three rounds. Each one points to an archetype of the type of person people often tab to be a leader, for better or worse:

The Supreme Talent
Andrew Luck is just a damn good QB. A three-year starter who completed 2/3 of his passes (and scored highest on the Wonderlic in this group), you have little reason to worry about his success.

The only knock on Luck has been that he’s more cerebral than charismatic. Yet, with people like this in any line of work, there’s no reason to believe they won’t succeed. Nothing in their history suggests otherwise. Luck will be a good QB, and any leader who hits the key metrics in their field the way Luck does in his will similarly be a good bet to succeed.

The Charismatic Leader
Robert Griffin III meets most of the qualifications on paper. His wonderlic score is slightly below average (not a huge detriment), but he’s a three-year starter (over 35 career starts) and completed 2/3 of his passes. Also, every report says that his teammates love him. He’s a charismatic guy who can rally and motivate them.

RG3 will likely be a success, as most charismatic leaders are. Whatever they may be lacking themselves, they can rally others to do. The key to identifying people like RG3 (as opposed to The Projection, which is covered later), is to look for a demonstrated track record of success, irrespective of their charisma. Get both, and you’ve likely got a strong leader who will do well.

The Natural Talent
Ryan Tannehill came to Texas A&M as a wide receiver, played his first two seasons there, then moved to QB. He started just over 20 games, and his completion percentage is in the low 60s.

He has a good wonderlic score (34), meaning he’s a better bet than most to put in the work to become good at his new role. It’s easy to think he can make it as as QB with all his given talent, but the odds are against it. Yet, if he doesn’t make it at QB, he can probably succeed in another role. That’s the thing with natural talents; they’ll be good at more than just one thing.

The Late Bloomer
Brandon Weeden tried his hand at baseball, and when that didn’t work out, went to Oklahoma State and became a record-setting QB. Now, he’ll turn 29 as a rookie, 6-8 years older than most of his peers. He’s a tough call, since he’s just at the threshold for wonderlic and starts, but his completion percentage is just under 70%.

His biggest disadvantage, as with all late bloomers, is the clock. Certainly he was successful in college, but he’s already at the age when most QBs peak. His learning and adjustment curve has to be quick, or the team that drafted him is likely to see a positive return for only a few short seasons, if at all.

The Projection

Brock Osweiler just looks like a star quarterback. At 6’7 and 242 pounds, you can just see him standing tall in the pocket, evading on-coming pass rushers before throwing perfect spirals to speedy wide receivers. Even though he only has slightly more than one season’s experience as a starter, and completed just over 60% of his passes, it’s easy to say that with all his natural physical talent, he just needs time to develop.

Except, history says he probably won’t. In fact, you’ll probably invest a lot of time in someone like this because you just know they should succeed. But they won’t, and you’ll be disappointed. It’s easy to get seduced by people who just seem like they should be good leaders, whether it’s because they’re charismatic and likeable, or they just exude the aura of leadership or success. More often than not, they won’t live up to expectations. In large part, it’s because they never have to change. Someone else will give them a chance because they project the same things.

My guess? Brock Osweiler is a bust. But in spite of his inexperience, and average completion percentage and wonderlic, he’ll keep getting chances.

The Steady Type
Nick Foles, taken 88th by the Philadelphia Eagles, is not expected to be a star – never mind start – any time soon. Nevertheless, I would be shocked if he’s the first one of the six out of the league. Foles started over 30 games and completed 2/3 of his passes for a middling Arizona team.

Many strong leaders will never wow you, they just get things done. Whether it’s through judicious (if cautious) decision-making or motivating and empowering their staff, they do a good, if not spectacular, job.. My guess is this is how Foles will play when he gets the chance. In football, these types of QBs are called “Game Managers”. They’ll never win you a game on your own, but they usually won’t blow it either.

When identifying leaders, it’s important to be thorough, and look for what is really important. If you’re in a position to do so for an organization, you could probably relate to NFL front offices.

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