(Second in a divergent series – click here for part one)
One of the major milestones in the Ravens’ Super Bowl season was the Back-From-Bye Week Mutiny: After a definitive thumping by the Texans in Houston Coach Harbaugh ordered up a team practice in full pads. The players responded with (metaphorical) torches & pitchforks, led by veterans like SS Bernard Pollard and WR Anquan Boldin who considered this an unnecessary additional humiliation.
Reportedly this confrontation led, not to (metaphorical) Cossacks firing into the crowd, but to a locker-room group-therapy session.
Reportedly, Harbaugh relented on the pads, listened respectfully as players laid grievances at his feet & responded thoughtfully. Reportedly, with the air cleared, Coach altered his approach to the team & both sides went forward with a new solidarity on the way to the Lombardi.
Many fans read the accounts & muttered, Horse hockey—a hard-arse like Harbaugh doesn’t change his style. Hell, he’s constitutionally incapable of it.
But I thought back thirty years to my days as a young & talented but, mmm, unconventional defense analyst back in the 1980s & just nodded my head.
Stranger things have happened—I’d seen them.
I started my DoD-funded career with a group of mostly young & single engineers in rented space a few hundred yards from the main corporate buildings. My first boss was a soft-spoken easygoing ex-Navy pilot. We didn’t much respect starting times or lunch hours & we goofed off from time to time, but so long as we got the work done & done well (working evening & weekends if necessary) all was well.
He was promoted. His replacement was fresh out of the service (COL, USA, RET), unfamiliar with the somewhat esoteric & unglamorous (but profitable!) work we did, & very much a “by-the-book” boss.
Almost immediately the new guy started committing us to projects & schedules that severely ramped up our workload. We gritted our teeth & put in more & longer nights in our customary free-spirited fashion—for which we were regularly castigated by Col. Hardarse.
Late one workday he called me into his office & ripped me for reading a newspaper while sitting at my desk (in an 8’x8’ cubicle I shared with 3 coworkers). Then he complained about how we were all just a bunch of goof-offs.
And (in a controlled way) I lost it:
If it’s so important to you that we show up & go to lunch & come back exactly on time, we can. But you’d better think about it first.
For every hour we show up late, night after night we work 3 or 4 hours later—to finish the work you commit us to because you don’t understand how hard it is or how long it takes.
You don’t see that when you go home at quitting time—but you’d better think about how all the work will get done if we’re walking out right behind you.*
Dismissed, I returned to my desk & pulled out my resume for revision. I wasn’t terribly worried—I had savings, no major debts, & at the time technical expertise was (like NFL-level football skills) in some demand—but I figured I wouldn’t last the week.
I was wrong.
He did think about it. (He probably asked around to verify the late nights, but still…)
And then the Colonel, accustomed over decades to having his orders obeyed without question, eased up on us. He pushed back on unreasonable taskings. And he stopped hassling us about how we approached our jobs.
(We even came to joke about it: In one meeting I was assigned a task by a project manager & asked for a due date. The Colonel broke in with a laugh: What do you care? You’re not going to start it until the afternoon it’s due. I replied, But I need to know which afternoon so I can put it on my schedule. And both of us roared while everyone else chuckled nervously.
(FTR it got done—on the afternoon it was due—& done well..)
I conjecture that the Coach, like the Colonel long before him, came to understand the fundamental symbiotic relationship between supervisor & supervised: Subordinates’ primary task is to make the boss look good. The supervisors’ primary task is to provide his staff with a work environment where they can make him look good.
For two men used to functioning in rigid, unquestioning hierarchies, it must have been hard to adjust. But they did. And their staff/roster responded.
And in the end, the job got done, and done well.
*The labor-relations-savvy will recognize this veiled threat as “working to rule.” Not something the non-unionized can often get away with these days—but it was a different world.