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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

What NFL Replacement Refs Show About Leadership Confidence

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NFL replacement referee Jim Winterberg makes a call in a preseason game. NFL replacement referee Jim Winterberg makes a call in a preseason game. Gene J. Puskar/AP

So, here’s an out-there prediction for you. The current labor dispute between the NFL and its officials is going to end soon after a melee breaks out during a game that the replacement refs failed to control. Of course, I hope things don’t actually go that way, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As anyone who has watched a game in the last week knows (Broncos at Falcons on Monday night would be an excellent example), the replacement refs are out of their depth on many fronts. (Should the NFL even stage games with replacement officials is a whole other legitimate question.)

Knowing the rules and rhythms of the pro game are a couple of obvious areas of deficiency for the replacements. What’s more dangerous, though, is the lack of confidence and command presence they demonstrate during the games. The coaches and players are getting more and more abusive toward the officials and tempers appear to be approaching the boiling point.

In an interview with Dan Patrick earlier this week, Mike Florio of  ProFootballTalk.com said the replacement refs remind him of that scene in Gladiator where the combatants are entering the Roman coliseum for the first time and are awed by what they see. Fortunately, the replacement refs aren’t dealing with actual lions and tigers (the Lions and Bengals aside), but they are in a dangerous situation for themselves and those playing the game.

Even though they’re replacements, they’re still the designated authority figures on the field. For their own good and that of the people playing the game they need to assert their authority.

I haven’t had any replacement refs asking for advice and really don’t expect that they’re reading this blog. If I was asked, though, here are a few ideas I’d share with them (or any other leader that has to demonstrate confidence and command presence in a tough situation):

Think Ahead: As I wrote a couple of years ago in a post on how the Coast Guard prepares for emergencies, it’s vital that leaders anticipate what might happen. By considering the likely scenarios and how you might respond, you’re better prepared to act when things play out in real time. Let’s face it, the replacement refs are inexperienced and are going to blow some calls. That’s a given. What they need to get ready for is how they’re going to handle things when coaches or players go nuts about the blown calls.

Know Your Limits: Another way to phrase this advice is be clear about your boundaries. What’s the limit on the amount of abuse or push back you’re going to take before you say, “OK, we’re done here – either move on or get off the field.”? It doesn’t look like the replacement refs are prepared to lay down the law when things go past the limits of chippy. Without limits on abusive behavior, things can quickly get out of control. That’s true in a football game and it’s true in an office. Leaders have to be clear about their limits and enforce them.

Remember: Even though the replacement refs don’t have the big game experience that the regular refs do, they’ve probably spent years watching the regulars in action. While it’s impossible to replicate years of experience in a few years on the job, you can get a lot of guidance about how to handle the tough situations by remembering what some of the best in the business did under similar circumstances. Maybe the question the replacement refs need to be asking themselves is “What would Ed Hochuli do?

OK, NFL fans, what’s your best leadership advice for the replacement officials? What can the rest of us learn from the situation they find themselves in?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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