When is it perfectly justifiable to admit defeat to everyone around you?
To accept the blame for an error?
To stand up, even in the harsh spotlight, and admit you were the problem?
After a stunning Super Bowl defeat yesterday, the coach of the L.A. Rams, Sean McVay, was quick to point out the source of the problems on the field.
It was him.
"I got outcoached," he said after the game.
And, it was pretty obvious. Watching the game, you could tell the New England Patriots had a game plan to counter the run-and-gun offense of the Rams. They showed a blitz constantly, which means several players moved up to the line, but then constantly backed off. They read the plays, covering every open receiver like glue on a napkin.
Here's the full quote after he admitted to being outcoached:
"So, I think a lot of it is a result of some of the things they did but then also the play selection," said McVay during a post-game press conference. "I was not pleased at all with my feel for the flow of the game and kind of making some adjustments as the game unfolded and with giving ourselves a chance at some success and put some points on the board. Credit to them, they did a good job, and I certainly didn't do enough for us."
That's an extraordinary admission, and one that makes me respect him as a coach even more. The guy is 33 years old, half the age of Bill Belichick, the long-time Patriots coach (who is 66). During the game, you could tell it was a coaching battle. That seems to be the case whenever the score is that low. (The Rams lost 13-3 to the Patriots.) Everything the Rams tried ended up leading to a quick tackle, an errant pass, or a pile-up at the line of scrimmage. It was painful to watch, and not that entertaining for a casual fan like me (I prefer the Minnesota Vikings). Yet, there's a clear lesson for those of us in leadership.
Admitting you were to blame is not easy, especially in sports. For one thing, suggesting you were outcoached can lead to getting fired. (At this level, just getting to the Super Bowl is an amazing accomplishment, so McVay is in no danger.) For most of us, admitting any failure might seem counter-productive. No one likes to follow someone who has no idea what they are doing or has major weaknesses. Yet, it's more than just a strategy to reveal a few chinks in the armor even as you act like a perfect specimen of leadership. It's more like an authentic way to lead that shows you won't always make perfect decisions.
Most of us prefer to follow leaders like that.
Admitting weaknesses is important because it shows you are human. We all make mistakes, and if you have a good team around you, they will know that admitting defeat and not being up to the challenge of leading are not the same thing. No Rams player is going to throw McVay under the bus. Especially with younger workers who demand authenticity, admitting when you made a mistake or dropped the ball on a project is a way to lead by example, it means you can reveal the areas where you need the most help.
Think about all of the other coaches out there, at the lowest rung of youth sports up to the collegiate and pro levels. McVay just gave them permission to fail, to admit they need to study the opponent in greater detail, to work harder and overcome their deficiencies. That's the best kind of leadership. Not perfection, not pride, not a big ego.
Pride is the gap between our actual ability and what we think is expected of us. Most of us need to close that gap. We're not that outstanding. We're not that amazing. And everyone knows it anyway. For McVay, saying he was outcoached is accepting reality, and it also lets everyone know he is going to improve, so you better be ready.
I am. I now see McVay as a better leader and a better coach. By next year, he might crush his opponent in the Super Bowl, no matter how old the other coach is by then.