The sporting world is filled with stars, their super-coaches, and their stories of adversity. Sometimes, it's inspiring. Sometimes, it's a story of what not to do. In the case of Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, you'd expect his story to fit into the category of "abject dejection and panic" (which I know well as a fan of Cincinnati professional sports).

But when Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy broke his leg on Monday night, two weeks after Redskins quarterback Alex Smith suffered the same fate, Gruden didn't pull out his hair--he pulled out a gem of a response. Here's what he told reporters after the game:

"This is a tough blow. Losing Alex was one thing. He was a great leader, great quarterback. Then Colt finally gets his opportunity and he gets kicked in the leg and breaks it. I'm heartbroken for both of those guys."

He went on to say about his new starter, Mark Sanchez, who was only signed after Smith's injury:

"We have to get a plan ready for Mark, move him forward. He hasn't had many days here so it has been difficult. We've got to play great football around him, which we didn't do tonight. Our offense has to step up around him and make it a little bit easier for him."

Here's what makes Gruden's response such an emotionally intelligent way of handling adversity.

He started with compassion for the people most affected.

Gruden started by acknowledging the two injured quarterbacks as people. Smith was a high-priced off-season acquisition that the Redskins were going to build around this year before his gruesome leg injury (one that recalled the horrific injury of another Washington quarterback, the great Joe Theismann). Gruden called Smith out as a great leader.

Colt McCoy has been a journeyman and backup quarterback in the NFL for the last eight years, finally getting a shot in the spotlight again with Smith out. Gruden acknowledged the tragedy of McCoy missing his opportunity now. He also made a point to say he was heartbroken for both men, and even made sure to state how tough this would be on Sanchez, given just how new he was.

My own experience as a leader tells me that if you don't start with empathy for those most affected by the adversity you're facing, you can come across as callous, self-centered, and out of touch.

He maintained a sense of accountability.

Gruden didn't go into excuse making mode or launch into a woe-is-me soliloquy. Instead, he acknowledged that the team didn't play great football and that everyone was going to have to step up to make it easier for the newbie quarterback. 

I've seen too many leaders use adversity as a chance to defuse their level of accountability. "Look what's happened to me!" they say. "No wonder things aren't going well."

It doesn't fly in the business world or anywhere else. As Sanchez said after the game, "There are no excuses. To be totally honest, nobody cares. Nobody cares. You're charged with a job. You get paid to play this game. You get paid to go win. That's what people expect."

He kept a forward-moving mindset.

Gruden didn't dwell on the reality of what had happened--a crushing blow that could take down many a coach. Instead, he made it clear that the only direction to move was forward.

It's especially important that you visibly show this moving-forward mindset in times of adversity. Employees can sense defeatism a mile away--and they will replicate the sentiment. Not a good scenario.

Leaders set the tone for the rest of the team in how they handle adversity. After the game, Sanchez received a lot of "we've got your back" talks from his teammates, no doubt influenced by Gruden's emotionally intelligent reaction.

Your own version of adversity likely won't involve the breaking of legs and potentially of football seasons, but whatever form it takes, you can come across as a champion coach by stealing a page from Jay Gruden's playbook.

Published on: Dec 5, 2018
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