Why Great Leaders Make Big Mistakes: A Study of Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz

SanMateoHawk

Scout Team
Oct 21, 2002
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I posted this on LinkedIn for a non-Hawk fan audience. Thought the board would enjoy it:

One of the great things about sports is that success is quantifiable and precise. Michael Jordan is not considered one of the best athletes of all time because he had the respect of his teammates or because he wrote a lengthy treatise on winning. His reputation stems from his six NBA championships, his astounding scoring, and his clutch plays.

The business world, alas, does not share such clarity. There are many CEOs who are better at self-promotion than they are at leadership, and thus get accolades for their “vision” and “strategy” when things go well only to delegate blame to underlings when things go poorly.

For this reason, sports often offers better lessons about leadership than business. While there is always an element of luck in everything, causation is much easier to identify in sports than it is in business.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as it relates to my favorite sports team, Iowa football. Iowa football has been led by Coach Kirk Ferentz for 24 years, making him the longest active coach in the NCAA. Ferentz has had astounding success at Iowa. As the official University of Iowa site will proudly tell you, Ferentz has:
  • Led Iowa to 19 bowl games since 2001;
  • Won 10 or more games in seven seasons;
  • Won national coach of the year twice and Big Ten coach of the year three times;
  • Led Iowa to finish in the top ten five times;
  • Coached 11 first-round NFL draft picks.
Pretty impressive, right?

And yet, in the last year, Ferentz has made some awfully strange decisions. Actually, let’s not mince words - he has made some terrible decisions.

Over the last ten games dating back to last year, he’s started a quarterback who has thrown nine interceptions versus just one touchdown. The QB's stats for this year so far: a 45% completion rate, 3.9 yards per catch, two interceptions and no touchdowns. Iowa has scored a total of 14 points in two games and four of those points came off defensive safeties.

The Iowa offense is dead last in the nation in scoring offense and their quarterback - Spencer Petras - is 120th out of 122 QBs in passing efficiency. All of this, by the way, has been against mediocre competition. The team has been booed numerous times by fed-up fans.

Meanwhile, during the offseason, Ferentz promoted his son, Brian, who was already the Offensive Coordinator, to the additional title of Quarterbacks Coach (as an aside, according to the University, Brian Ferentz wasn’t hired by his dad, which would violate University nepotism rules, but was instead hired by the University’s athletic director. Yeah right!)

During Brian’s six years as Offensive Coordinator, the best the offense has performed is 40th out of 131 teams with an average performance of 78th.

Great leaders analyze a situation and course correct if necessary. And yet, in this instance, Ferentz has done the opposite. In a recent press conference, reporters asked him over and over (for six minutes, to be precise) why Petras was still starting at quarterback. Ferentz mumbled something about “you don’t see how well he performs in practice.” The reporters persisted: isn’t practice irrelevant? Isn’t his on-the-field results (or lack thereof) the relevant gauge of success. Again, Ferentz gave a nonsensical response

So what’s going on here? How can a clearly great leader make such obvious blunders? Here are six deadly sins Ferentz - and all leaders - may make, and how to avoid them.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias “is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values.” Another way of saying this is that we often start with the answer we want and then selectively believe facts that support our answer and reject facts that don’t.

In Ferentz's case, he has hired his son to manage the team’s offense. What father wouldn’t put on rose colored glasses in evaluating his son’s performance? And now that his son is also the quarterbacks coach, Ferentz may be filtering out bad news about his quarterback and focusing exclusively on the good news (insofar as there is any).

The lesson: Great leaders make decisions based on the facts, without predetermined conclusions they are looking to validate.

Ego

In The Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday notes: “The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.”

Kirk Ferentz has been told by millions of fans, University administrators, and sports journalists that he is an elite football coach. He has been awarded prestigious honors and has set numerous records.

Perhaps all of that flattery has gone to his head. Perhaps he has decided that, to paraphrase another ego-maniac, “I alone can fix it.” Lacking self-reflection and a willingness to listen to others, Ferentz’s ego may be leading him down a disastrous path.

The lesson: Great leaders seek out and listen to advice from others. When they are presented with evidence that shows that they need to change course, they admit they are wrong and change.

The Johari Window

The Johari window is a technique for classifying what we do and do not know about ourselves. There are four types of personal knowledge in this model:
  • What we know about ourselves that others do not know;
  • What we know about ourselves that others know;
  • What we don’t know about ourselves that others know;
  • What we don’t know about ourselves that others don’t know.
The most powerful knowledge we can obtain is from people that know something about us that we don’t know about ourselves. For example, perhaps we come across as arrogant when addressing employees, or perhaps we have an unconscious bias. These traits may be obvious to others and unobservable to us.

Kirk Ferentz is stubborn. When confronted with criticism, he appears to refuse to admit mistakes and instead doubles down on that mistake. He seems unwilling to truly consider valid critiques made by “outsiders.”

The lesson: Great leaders want to always get better and are open to constructive criticism from all sources.

Lack of Accountability

Lord Acton summed this one up by noting: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Leaders who feel (or actually are) immune to discipline become increasingly obstinate, obnoxious and oblivious. They act unilaterally and often make decisions based on emotion rather than logic.

Earlier this year, Kirk Ferentz signed an eight year contract extension worth $56 million. He runs a football team that brings in more than $50 million in annual revenue and tens of millions of annual donations to the University. Ferentz knows he can’t be fired anytime soon, and he knows that the University depends on him to be a reliable and very large cash cow. He can make bad decisions all day long and it’s unlikely his job will be in jeopardy.

The lesson: Great leaders need to be held accountable. They need to genuinely believe that they could lose their power if they make bad decisions.

Apathy

Let’s face it - after doing the same job for a long time, it loses a little of its luster. Some leaders just get tired of their job but can’t admit to themselves that they need to move on.

Kirk Ferentz has been the Iowa coach for 24 years. As noted, that’s longer than any other college football coach. The players on the team weren’t even born when Ferentz started coaching. I don’t know for a fact that he is tired, but it also wouldn’t shock me.

The lesson: Leaders need to bring passion and energy to their job. When a leader no longer gets excited about their job, they need to consider handing the reins to a successor.

Gut vs. Data

Sports at all levels has been transformed by data, as seen in the book, Moneyball. While there is certainly a place for intuition or “gut” in sports, relying entirely on your subjective observations without crunching the data is an increasingly anachronistic approach.

The data about Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras is unimpeachable. Petras just doesn’t perform at a college level. He may look great in practice but the statistics show that he is a mediocre college quarterback (and I’ll note, by all accounts he is a wonderful and intelligent person and will likely do well in life. Just not in football). And yet, Ferentz sticks by him, despite longitudinal data that shows that Petras is not up to the job.

The lesson: We live in a data-driven world. Great leaders use their gut but rely heavily on data. In most cases, great leaders let data win over gut.
 

DewHawk

HR All-American
Jun 10, 2005
2,689
3,040
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Long dissertation, but overall, pretty accurate/interesting given Ferentz's behavior the last few years.

IMO Ferentz is just too comfortable ($'s, status, etc.) and he really no longer has the motivation to work/field a nationally competitive team at Iowa. Again, in MHO, the Iowa football program is headed south and it is going to get very ugly unless some dramatic changes are made in the coaching ranks.
 

SanMateoHawk

Scout Team
Oct 21, 2002
130
209
43
Long dissertation, but overall, pretty accurate/interesting given Ferentz's behavior the last few years.

IMO Ferentz is just too comfortable ($'s, status, etc.) and he really no longer has the motivation to work/field a nationally competitive team at Iowa. Again, in MHO, the Iowa football program is headed south and it is going to get very ugly unless some dramatic changes are made in the coaching ranks.
I think most fans agree with you right now. I hope Ferentz gets some self-awareness quickly
 

cecilB

HR Heisman
Nov 1, 2001
6,873
1,484
113
What did your non-Hawkeye audience have to say about your leadership brief?
 

ShonnDeereGreene

All-Conference
Jun 8, 2022
473
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Great post. Helps to understand some of the psychology for anyone wondering “how can Ferentz be so stubborn or blind?” Especially while still appreciating the fact that he has been (and may still be) a great leader for the program. I enjoyed it both as a hawkeye fan perplexed by the current situation and also from a business/leadership perspective. Thanks!
 
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Hawk and Awe

HR Heisman
Sep 15, 2012
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I personally think considering KF an egomaniac, stubborn or unwilling to accept criticism as the problem of this season is absolutely ridiculous. He has ALWAYS been these things.

You are not alone in this opinion… Many people agree with you so I’m sure I’m wrong. But Unless you have been miserable and insulting him all these years I think it’s bogus to write all that about him now. Maybe you should read more about confirmation bias?

It’s a bad year and a bad job by him and I hope he retires. And I really envy the self confidence to give the man a leadership lesson on LinkedIn
 

SanMateoHawk

Scout Team
Oct 21, 2002
130
209
43
Great post. Helps to understand some of the psychology for anyone wondering “how can Ferentz be so stubborn or blind?” Especially while still appreciating the fact that he has been (and may still be) a great leader for the program. I enjoyed it both as a hawkeye fan perplexed by the current situation and also from a business/leadership perspective. Thanks!
Thank you! I enjoyed combining the hawks and business in one post!
 
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Reactions: natchrlman

natchrlman

HR All-American
Jul 10, 2003
4,479
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south park beat a dead horse GIF
 

SanMateoHawk

Scout Team
Oct 21, 2002
130
209
43
I personally think considering KF an egomaniac, stubborn or unwilling to accept criticism as the problem of this season is absolutely ridiculous. He has ALWAYS been these things.

You are not alone in this opinion… Many people agree with you so I’m sure I’m wrong. But Unless you have been miserable and insulting him all these years I think it’s bogus to write all that about him now. Maybe you should read more about confirmation bias?

It’s a bad year and a bad job by him and I hope he retires. And I really envy the self confidence to give the man a leadership lesson on LinkedIn
The leadership lesson was intended for others. I can't imagine Ferentz spending much time browsing LinkedIn.
 

JEDN

HR Heisman
Gold Member
Feb 5, 2003
5,059
4,663
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Why in the world would Ferentz even give one tiny thought to retiring. Lifetime tenure and a huge salary. Also the added bonus of one million dollars annually for your over matched son.