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Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness

The case of Florida Atlantic University Football

Sports are an excellent laboratory for understanding how leadership impacts organizational effectiveness. The criteria for success are clear and easily quantified (i.e., winning vs. losing). Moreover, frequent changes in personnel and leadership provide quasi-experimental evidence of how these factors play a role in success. In this post, I consider the case of the Florida Atlantic University football program.

In the fall of 2011 there was a great deal of excitement in Boca Raton as it was the opening season for a brand-nw football stadium. The $70 million stadium seats around 30,000 people and is located in the heart of the campus.[1] The season, however, was disappointing for FAU fans. The team finished with 1 win and 11 losses, dead last in its conference, and had an average attendance of 17,565 — 103rd among its FBS competitors. The legendary Howard Schnellenberger, who had announced his intention to retire prior to the beginning of the season, stepped down as head coach.

The team did not fare much better over the next five seasons. Carl Pelini was hired to begin the 2012 season, but later resigned midway through the 2013 season for alleged illegal drug use. Charlie Partridge took over for the 2014 season and recorded three consecutive 3-9 records before being fired in November 2016. One month later, FAU hired Lane Kiffin as head coach for the 2017 season.

Without a full season to recruit, Kiffin was faced with coaching the same players who had just produced back-to-back-to-back 3-9 records.[2] For this reason, what happened in 2017 is remarkable:

  • An 11-3 record, their best-ever as an FBS competitor.
  • A team record 58 points in a game against Old Dominion.
  • Breaking that record with 69 points in a game against North Texas the next week.
  • Scoring 73 offensive touchdowns, tied for 3rd most in the nation.
  • An undefeated record (8-0) in conference play.
  • Winning the conference championship with a 41-17 rout of North Texas.
  • Becoming Boca Raton Bowl Champions with a 50-3 victory over Akron.

Same roster. Different leadership. Vastly different results. How was this possible? I watched the team play in 2016. Despite having the same players, the 2017 team looked entirely different. In 2016, when a critical 4th down came up, the team looked lost and panicked: “Should we punt?” “Should we go for it?” No one seemed to know. Watch the clip below to see how the 2017 team reacted to a 4th-and-goal situation in the first quarter of the Boca Raton Bowl:

When the 3rd-and-goal try fails, the team, without panic and without a huddle, returns to the line of scrimmage, snaps the ball within 7 seconds, and scores a wide-open touchdown in the end zone. They knew exactly what play to run and how to execute it in the situation. That’s preparation. Preparation that can only come from leadership.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the consensus among leadership researchers was that leadership is situationally-driven. That is, leadership and organizational outcomes were entirely based on circumstances outside individual control. In the decades since, we’ve proven over and over again that who is in charge has dramatic consequences for performance in sports, business, and political organizations. Lane Kiffin was placed in exactly the same situation as his predecessors. The results of this natural experiment once again confirm the hypothesis that leadership matters.

As for 2018, Las Vegas has set the Owls likely win-total line at 9. They begin the season as 21-point underdogs, just down the road from me in Norman against the 7th-ranked Oklahoma Sooners. While they may not win that games, I wouldn’t bet against Kiffin and FAU.

[1] In prior years, the team had played at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, about a 30-minute drive from campus.

[2] 66 players (64%) from the 2016 roster were also on the 2017 roster.

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