Open and Relational Leadership Is Like Coaching a Football Team
By James Bradley Miller
Effective leadership conforms to an open, relational, and evolving creation aimed toward love.
It is a part of modern physics lore that Einstein declared, “God does not play dice!” to which Bohr is said to have retorted, “Albert, don’t tell God what to do.” Of course, neither man was a theologian nor was their debate a theological one. They were arguing about the indeterminacy that seemed integral to quantum theory. As it turned out, Bohr was apparently on the correct side of the argument. Due to the probabilistic character of quantum theory, the cosmos appears to be stochastic, meaning the present is underdetermined by the past.
This does not mean that the universe is chaotic in the common sense of that term. It does not mean that there are not fixed elements in the universe. The simplest example of this is the true die. The true die has six sides labeled with six different numbers. On any throw of the die, one of those numbers will be revealed. All of that is fixed. But, with a true die, one cannot declare with certainty beforehand what number will come up. In principle, there is a one-sixth chance that a particular number will be revealed on each throw.
This probabilistic understanding of the universe suggests an existentialist rather than an essentialist understanding of the cosmos. The universe does not become what it is, it is what it becomes. In addition, it suggests that the universe is not something that has a history, it is its history. The universe is constituted of its relationships rather than an essential thing that has relationships. And those relationships are dynamic. In more Aristotelian terms, the universe’s essence is its accidents. So, theologically, the creation is ontologically open and relational.
As the title of this article proposes, coaching football is both an example of and a metaphor for leadership that is fit for an open and relational creation. A football game includes both fixed and probabilistic elements. The size of the field, the formal rules of the game including the number of players on the field at a time, and the plays designed by the coaching staff and practiced repeatedly by the players are fixed elements. But the probabilistic elements are even more numerous.
First, the weather. It can vary in terms of temperature and precipitation and can vary in real time during game play. Then, the defense or offense may not line up exactly as anticipated in the play design, requiring reciprocal adjustments. There are also fumbles and interceptions and broken plays, not all of which cannot be known ahead of time. The rules of the game may be fixed but their application by the officials on the field are not deterministic but often require judgments, which are probabilistic. The odds makers in Las Vegas may have sufficient probabilistic insight such that they can set odds so that they are able to make money from the gambling public. But even they cannot fully protect themselves from outlier outcomes.
If the creation itself is open and relational, what are the fitting elements of leadership? First, it is foundational to understand that the leader plus those being led form a team—an organic or coherent union—not simply an aggregation of otherwise isolated embodied skills. However, such relational, coherent order is not the opposite of indeterminacy. Rather it is the condition of order by virtue of which any outcome affects all. For example, the performance of team members on the field affects not only each individual player’s status and that of the team as a whole but also the status of the coach on the sidelines.
Second, it is important to understand that goals in such a probabilistic cosmos are primarily qualitative and not specifically formal. A qualitative goal may be singular but it can be achieved through a variety of forms. This means at least that goals exist as an array of possible outcomes. These outcomes themselves are a part of a more comprehensive array of possible events, some of which will be antithetical to the desired goal. As arrays, the outcomes rarely have equal probabilities, unlike the throw of a true die. The qualitative outcome of a football game is to score more points than the opponent. But that outcome can be large, small, or even nonexistent in the case of a tie. The particular point spread in any case is highly probabilistic.
In preparation for a team effort, the coach needs to assess as best as possible the probabilities of potential outcomes. The strategy of the game plan will depend on that assessment. Ironically, in a particular set of game circumstances, the actions required to achieve the desired goal may not have the highest probability. In addition—even given an initial game plan—moment by moment assessment of probabilities, play to play or for the on-field team members even during a play, are required.
Third, as a consequence of the inherent uncertainty of each play—as well as the game as a whole—a relatively conservative retention of as many options as possible is prudent. A coach who sticks assiduously to a pre-established game plan is virtually certain to lead to a loss. Likewise, a coach that limits his offense only to running or passing plays is also likely to lead to a loss. Burning bridges reduces opportunity. Conservative retention of options provides the best insurance for the ability to respond effectively to changing circumstances.
Fourth, trust is an essential element of open and relational leadership. Trust in a game of football or most human social endeavors has many dimensions. For the game of football there is trust between the coach and the on- field team as a group, between the coach and on-field team leaders (offensive and defensive), between the on-field team leaders and other on-field team members, and amongst the whole panoply of on- and off-field team members.
The on-field team trusts that the coach has developed a potentially winning game plan and the coach trusts that the rest of the team are committed to the game plan. In real time, the on-field leaders trust that the coach, who has an overview of the game, can provide options that are not obvious at field level and the coach trusts that the on-field leaders will act on the options identified. The on-field leaders trust that the other on-field team members will act on their offensive or defensive calls and the various on-field team members trust that their leaders are conveying reliable options from “on high.” On every play, each team member trusts that his fellow members will fulfill their assignments.
Lastly, a coach must be open to surprise. Not all surprises are good. In football, an on-field injury is a surprise that can have a negative effect for not only the particular player or game but also possibly for a whole season. A football coach or any other leader has to consider such negative surprises. However, the vast majority of surprises are the inevitable consequence of living in a probabilistic cosmos about which we have limited understanding. Not only that, it is a universe that is still being created. Giving voice to God’s creative declaration Isaiah wrote, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
In an open, relational, and only partially understood universe being created, openness to surprise is an essential leadership quality. Surprise is the mother of improvisation, whether for a coach calling plays in real time or an on-field player reacting to emergent circumstances.
All analogies have their limitations. A football game is not a scientific investigation, a technological project or a legislative effort. Yet all these human endeavors involve teamwork, a qualitative outcome, conservation of options, trust among participants, as well as innovation. Effective leadership requires conforming to an open and relational, evolving creation.
Theologically, the qualitative goal of the creation is the incarnation of the power of love through the calling Word of God, who is love. And what is the character of that power? The Apostle Paul described it in these words, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8a)
In a 1936 the Jesuit paleoanthropologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, captured the goal of empowering love when he wrote, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire” (Toward the Future).
James Bradley Miller is a retired teaching elder of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a co-founder of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith. Currently, he serves as co-chair of the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Human Origins Program of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. He is the author of Where Did I Come From? A Guide for Parents in Science, Evolution, Human Origins and the Christian Faith (2018).
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.