Gridiron Leadership Lessons

Picture this….a beautiful, warm autumn afternoon.  Brightly colored maple leaves blanketing a triangular park in a sort of David Lynch-esque neighborhood.  Along the edges of the park and in the front lawns of the surrounding homes, small groups of adults, mainly physicians and academicians gathered in this fairly affluent neighborhood.  Toddlers and preschoolers played in and amongst the grown-ups.  Meanwhile, centered in the park, a group of elementary school boys huddled up.  Several wore the familiar green and gold jerseys of the hometown favorite team, the Green Bay Packers.

At first, I couldn’t make out (or wasn’t particularly paying attention to) the conversation of these hopeful gridiron warriors, their banter too familiar from my own youth.  Yes, I remember it well, the verbal battles to simply divide into two roughly equivalently skilled teams to reenact the afternoon’s NFL battle we had all watched on television just hours earlier.  There were heated arguments….

”No, we get Chris!  You got David!”

Occasionally, the protestations grew uglier….”We don’t want Bobbie!  No fair, we have to take Charles again!”

And then began the contest, typically a three or four play drive resulting in a touchdown, back and forth.  At first it was two-handed touch.  But as the group grew in size and the passions grew with it, I watched as these kids roughly began tackling and horse-collaring each other to the group at every opportunity.

My description isn’t an indictment of their game, their interactions, or the severity of their interpersonal roughness.  Not at all, in fact!  What I sat and observed for nearly two hours on Sunday afternoon was a fascinating display of power and leadership, individual and group.

Talk about leadership as the ability to influence others, and this game was all about the struggles to gain, demonstrate, and retain power within a group of 10-year old boys.  Jane Goodall’s ape studies played out amongst the fallen leaves of Madison, Wisconsin.  

As adults, we’d quietly predicted the quick demise of the boys’ activity.  Someone would get tackled too roughly.  The teams would end up being uneven and compromise would collapse under the competitive weight of youth athletic passion.  But no, while there were small squabbles here and there throughout the afternoon, all in all, what transpired was a quite inspiring demonstration of self-monitored and self-regulated leadership on behalf of the entire group.

And in the end, it really made for a wonderful afternoon of watching football, even if the superstars weren’t making millions or performing in front of thousands of screaming fans.  For me, it was just as enjoyable as had I been sitting at Lambeau Field that afternoon.  And for the boys, even though they undoubtedly didn’t realize it, the lessons in leadership will have much more far reaching impacts than the result of the actual Packers game that day.  Or not….but either way, I really enjoyed my seat “in the stands” that afternoon.

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