Last week a conversation between two disengaged employees kicked off our series on motivation. This week we’ll use the way-back machine to examine a key driver of motivation that doesn’t get nearly enough airtime in discussions about effective leadership. It was 1995 and Gary Barnett was entering his fourth season as head football coach at Northwestern. (That’s American football for our non-American readers.) In the 24 years prior, the Wildcats were the laughing stock of the Big Ten Conference and, at times, all of college football. During that span Northwestern had not a single winning season as it amassed a record of 46-207. Between 1979 and 1982 they lost 34 games in a row. In one five year stretch, they lost every single Big Ten Conference game.
Barnett was hired in 1992. His first three years hadn't yielded much progress in terms of the team’s record. The team won just 8 games during that time. But Barnett saw something brewing. He saw potential. Said Barnett, “...at 211 degrees, water is just hot. At 212, one more degree of temperature, water turns to steam, which can create enough energy to move a train through a mountain pass. We were simmering at 211.”
The Turning Point
The Wildcats opened the 1995 season on the road against perennial football powerhouse Notre Dame. The #9 ranked Fighting Irish were 28 point favorites. But late in the game Northwestern found itself within reach of its greatest victory ever and one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
With less than 3 minutes to play and leading 17-15, the Wildcats faced a 3rd down and 7 yards to go. If they could convert this play and earn one more first down after that, they would be able to run out the clock and win the game. Barnett called a timeout to confer with his quarterback, Steve Schnur.
Barnett describes what happened next: “We couldn’t decide what [play] to run, so I said, 'Steve, what do you want to throw?' He said, '660 X Firm,' which was basically a curl route. That wasn’t necessarily what I thought was the play to go with, but what mattered was it was the one that Steve was most confident in executing. Sure enough, he fired it in to D’Wayne [Bates], who made a great catch. Then running back Darnell Autry ran about 30 yards [for another first down]. ...The clock ran out, and we had won 17–15.”
The college football community was stunned. Few thought it more than a fluke. The next three months, however, revealed it was more than that. Northwestern went on to finish the regular season 10-1. They won their first Big Ten Championship since 1936 and represented the conference in the “Granddaddy of them All"™ — The Rose Bowl. It was a rags to riches story that captured the imagination of millions.
No one was more caught up in Wildcat hysteria than the residents of Northwestern’s home city of Chicago. Previously, few Chicagoans paid any mind to Northwestern football. But in 1995, Northwestern football became the favorite son of one of America’s largest cities. I was a senior in college that year. I remember traveling to Chicago right around the time Northwestern was playing in the Rose Bowl. I will never forget looking up at the top of the Sears Tower -- it wasn’t the “Willis Tower” then so I’m not legally obligated to call it that -- to see it lit up in purple and white, Northwestern’s colors. Considering the history of Northwestern football, it was literally an unbelievable sight.
Barnett and his staff had orchestrated one of the most improbable turn arounds ever. It wasn't just a change for one season; it was a change of direction for Northwestern's football program that reverberates even today. Between 1882 and 1994 Northwestern participated in just one post-season bowl game. In the 20 years following the 1995 season, the Wildcats have been to nine.
How did Northwestern disconnect itself from a culture and history of failure? What could spur on such an enormous change of fortune? One of the major keys lives in Gary Barnett's discussion with his quarterback prior to that key 3rd and 7 call against Notre Dame.
In that moment, Barnett wasn't merely close to a big win. He was at the brink of a momentous career accomplishment for himself. He was the head coach. He was the one leading the cultural change. And yet, when it came to one of the biggest play calls of his career, he deferred to his 22-year old quarterback. In that moment, Barnett leaned into a motivation and engagement strategy that he used liberally in order to turn the program's culture around: ownership.
Ownership is a tremendous leadership weapon. Ownership gives those we lead a deeper and more personal connection to the endeavors in which we lead them. When we share ownership, we tap into basic human nature that connects the personal identity of our followers with the success and failure of our endeavors. When that happens motivation and engagement soar.
Frederick Herzberg, a researcher who investigated motivation, discovered that part of what makes work satisfying is knowing that one’s actions and decisions make a meaningful impact on the work being done. There may be no better definition of what ownership is than that.
In Barnett's memoir of Northwestern's 1995 season (High Hopes: Taking the Purple to Pasadena), he outlined how he intentionally and consistently shared ownership with both his players and his staff from the very moment he took over in 1992. He understood ownership's connection to motivation and engagement and how those two items impacted the cultural change he was after. He did everything he could to make sure that when Northwestern won or lost, his players and staff knew in their heads and felt in their hearts that it was they themselves that had won or lost rather than an impersonal entity known as 'the Northwestern football team.'
In order for our followers to have the motivation and engagement we desire them to have, we must discipline ourselves to let go of important decisions in order to share ownership with them. We must give our followers space to make meaningful choices about the work we are doing. True, we should not put them in situations where they are ill equipped to make wise choices, but over-delegating or relinquishing too much control is rarely our challenge as leaders. Far more often our issue is controlling too much and not sharing ownership enough.
Does sharing ownership require risk? Yes. Is it guaranteed to work out well every time? No. But when deciding if we are willing to share ownership in the endeavors we lead, we would be wise to consider the motivation and engagement that is lost when we don't share it.
There are great motivational payoffs when we share ownership with those we lead. But we can't realize those payoffs without exercising courage; courage like that of Gary Barnett who let a 22-year old make one of the biggest decisions of Barnett's career.
Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever intentionally shared ownership in order to increase motivation and engagement with those you're leading? Has a leader you were following ever done that with you? We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.
In case you're interested to see it for yourself, here are the highlights of the 1995 game between Northwestern and Notre Dame. The play Barnett let Schnur call happens at 5:41 in the video. Highlights of Northwestern @ Notre Dame, 2-Sep-95.
All quotes in this article are from Gary Barnett & Vahé Gregorian. “High Hopes.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/ytyuv.
I highly recommend High Hopes: Taking the Purple to Pasadena to any leader, sports fan or not. I especially recommend it to those who are leading a cultural change of any sort. It is an exceptional example of the power of ownership.
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