Deflategate: The Need for Certainty and Trust in Delegation


Certainty is comforting. It feels good to know what is right and what is wrong. Certainty builds confidence because with it, consequences are predictable, expectations and boundaries are clear, and certainty brings peace of mind by providing order to our experience of the world. Certainty can also be overused and morph into inflexibility and an autocratic style that demotivates, squelches creativity, demoralizes, and leads to the departure of valuable employees in an organization.

Some leaders know how to use certainty to benefit themselves and their organizations. For example, the team leader who ensures that everyone leaves a planning meeting knowing exactly what their role is, what they must get done, and by when does this well. Other leaders, like team captain Tom Brady could have done a better job of protecting himself and protecting the Patriots organization by being clearer about his expectations. For the sake of full disclosure, I’m a Bostonian and Patriots fan. I will neither defend nor repudiate our local sports legend. However, for the sake of this discussion I will highlight how Tom Brady, as the team leader, failed to delegate well and is responsible for the fallout even if not responsible for the infraction.

 Certainty and Delegation

The purpose of delegation is to save time and expense by creating agents who will help you do the work you are ultimately responsible for. There are two ways that leaders fail to delegate well. They are: (1) Micromanagement and (2) Over-Delegation.

When a leader micromanages, s/he doesn’t save any time since there is never any letting go of the task. The leader who over controls the process, neither saves time nor develops competence in staff or colleagues. When a leader over-delegates, s/he assigns the task to someone who is unprepared or incompetent, inexperienced, untrustworthy, or over committed. The result is the same; the leader who over delegates does not save time because in the end, when the work is turned in, the delegator will have a lot of finishing and reworking to do. Furthermore, the ill-prepared delegatee ends up feeling like a failure or causes a big problem for the leader. That is what happened in Deflategate.

Tom Brady is guilty of over-delegation. The simple task of making sure the footballs were at his preferred pressure per square inch (“psi”) has become a public relations disaster. Tom Brady did not communicate clearly about what he wanted and did not make certain that the person he delegated to was trustworthy. The ‘more probable than not’ standard is anything but certain and casts a shadow on Brady’s integrity.

 Clarity and Delegation

Let’s take Tom Brady at his word, that he “would never do anything to break the rules… I believe in fair play.” Assuming that is true, Tom Brady failed to make certain that the football pressure task was delegated to people who understood his boundaries and were prepared to execute that responsibility scrupulously.

The facts show that Tom Brady likes his footballs on the softest side of the legal limit -12.5 psi – and that locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant Jeff Jastremski knew that. There is no direct evidence at this time, that Brady instructed McNally to deflate the footballs below 12.5 psi. Brady could have said, “I want you to make sure the footballs are at 12.5 psi on game day and not a fraction more or less,” because if you want something done a certain way, you must make sure that you give clear directions and that those directions are understood. Even if he thought he had been clear about following the rules there is no room for ambiguity or blind trust when the stakes are high and temptation to cut corners is obvious. At those moments, it is more essential than ever that a team leader reiterate with absolute clarity the expectation that all individuals reporting to him or her will act within the parameters of the law.

 Trust and Delegation

Tom Brady also failed to make sure that the people he delegated to were trustworthy. We know from the text messages that McNally felt disrespected by Brady. (Text Messages)

When you are a leader with power and the face of your organization, it is essential that the people closest to you have your back; they should care about the organization, and feel responsible for your brand and reputation. Leaders need assistants and colleagues who can sometimes protect them from themselves and maintain objectivity during stressful times to protect the organization they all represent. It is analogous to the familiar assertion, “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Tom Brady had a lot on his mind and winning in his heart leading up to the Super Bowl game; he needed to be able to trust the people in his inner circle to know the limits of acceptability and manage potential collateral damage of his world-class competitiveness. It was his responsibility to set the boundaries during calmer times, but now he is left with a big clean up job, in part because he over-delegated to untrustworthy, disgruntled staff.

 Certainty at Work

In the workplace, there are rules, goals, and procedures to be followed. Some people will break the rules and get fired or marginalized, while others will break the rules and get rewarded for innovation and brilliance. How do people know:

  • Which rules can be bent to liberate joy and genius at work?
  • Which rules are non-negotiable and strengthen the team by avoiding violations of the law, or contracts, or ethical guidelines that hold an organization together?
  • Which black-and-white limits diminish, demoralize, stifle potential, and lead to disengagement?

To create an environment where delegation can succeed a leader must know and be able to explain why and when either rigidity or flexibility would be acceptable. It is not necessary to detail rules and procedures to cover all possibilities, but a good leader will set up clear guidelines so that people can make decisions with relative certainty that they are acting in alignment with the intentions and values of the leader and in the best interest of the organization.

Leaders, you will enjoy great rewards and credit when there is success. So, before you delegate, before you entrust your work, reputation, and organization into the hands of others, get to know and develop your people and make sure they understand your boundaries. Failure to do so could result in your stature being deflated overnight.

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