The Win that Wasn’t (leadership lessons from the 2017 Army-Navy game)

A magnificent snow-covered contest occurred for the 118th time on Saturday, December 9th, 2017. Army beat Navy 14 to 13; but the more appropriate headline would be: Navy Loses to Army on The Final Drive. Small errors made the big difference. There are four lessons from this year’s game that all leaders should ponder:

First, fortune favors those who tend to first principles.

At West Point, Cadets study the principles of war espoused by the 19th century strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who emphasized the inherent superiority of defense. A central principle of the game of football is that the defensive team must prevent the offensive team from gaining first downs and getting into the end zone. In the game’s final minutes, Navy’s defense faltered against the run, while Army’s ferocious defense held the line, unnerving Navy into committing two five-yard penalties when field position was everything. That brings us to lesson number two…

Second, minor errors can have disastrous results.

In Book 1, Chapter 5, of the treatise On the Heavens, Aristotle states that small mistakes left uncorrected in the beginning of a pursuit tend to develop into big problems later on. Two unforced errors caused Navy to lose critical time and yardage at the game’s end. Absent those errors, Navy’s field goal attempt would have easily gone through the uprights and they would have won.

Third, going the distance hardly guarantees making the destination.

Navy’s kicker Bennett Moehring had impressive power in his foot yet the factors of weather, field position, and pressure of the situation all contributed to his miss. Cadets and Midshipmen learn that the powerful ordnance in our nation’s arsenal can kill our friends just as easily as our enemies if not delivered to the correct target. Business leaders who consider lines of credit and investor capital to be the goal posts to clear should first consider if their aim will actually arrive in the markets where receptive customers exist.

Fourth, acknowledge your good luck.

All contests in athletics, business or war involve an element of chance. Even in a fair game of football played by two honorable foes on a level field under the same weather conditions, unintentional advantages can accrue to one team over the other. Army wore all white in tribute to the original Pando Commandos of the 10th Mountain Division, whose soldiers trained and later fought in brutal snow covered terrain. The snow provided critical camouflage to the White Clad Black Knights, perhaps tipping the balance of the game in Army’s favor against the brightly blue draped Navy team honoring their illustrious Blue Angel aviators. Small unforeseen advantages can have a big impact.

Congratulations to both teams on a great game. Thank you, Navy, for the leadership lessons. Next year’s lesson for Army remains the same: Beat Navy!

Former Army Football player, COL Mark McKearn, USA Retired, and his West Point classmate, Peter DeMarco are executive coaches.

Updated: March 5, 2019
Originally Uploaded December 14, 2017 to: LinkedIn