Stop Chasing and Start Leading – Leadership Lessons from the NHL

Last night the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to win the coveted Stanley Cup. Both teams deserved to be there, both played well throughout the season, and – as evidenced by a Game 7 in a best-of-seven-series – both teams were evenly matched.

Both teams were so evenly matched, in fact, that the same two teams had faced off last year for a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup. In 2008, the Red Wings were victorious, defeating the young Penguins in a Game 6 triple overtime thriller. After their heartbreaking loss, one Pittsburgh player, Marian Hossa, was offered a five-year, $35 million dollar deal to remain with the team. He declined; shocking nearly everyone in the hockey world by instead choosing to sign a one-year deal with the champion Red Wings. Hossa, you see, wanted to win a championship.

The Best Laid Plans…

As we learned in the first sentence of this post, Hossa’s old team defeated Hossa’s new team for the 2009 Stanley Cup. Hossa chased the Cup and fell short. The prevailing thought is that he screwed up – that if he’d stayed in Pittsburgh he would be on the winning side. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and Hossa’s departure surely led to other changes with the Penguins that may have contributed to their ultimate victory. That’s only speculation. The fact is that Hossa – so focused on winning a championship – couldn’t see the bright future ahead for the Penguins. He chased the Cup and (predictably) did not catch it.

Leaders Don’t Chase, They Lead

It’s strange that a hockey player would make such a mistake. From very early on in youth hockey, players are taught to skate to where the puck will be, not where it is. Players who skate directly after a moving puck become very tired, very quickly… and they never get the puck. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” Wayne Gretzky once intelligently stated. Hossa, we learned, skated to where the Cup had been, and away from where it was going to be.

Leaders don’t always know where the puck is going to be, but they do recognize that chasing things (especially shiny objects like the Stanley Cup) is fruitless and akin to a dog chasing its own tail. Leaders understand the goal and weigh decisions against it. Those activities that take them closer to the goal are good; those that don’t are bad. Leaders also understand their team’s capabilities, strengths and weaknesses; and they are able to project where their team will be at this time next year.

To See the Future, You Have to Look

With arguably the sport’s two greatest talents (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) and a young stud goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury) already on the roster, one would think Hossa would have seen Pittsburgh’s bright future and stayed. During the six games as a Penguin in the 2008 Stanley Cup finals, Hossa scored 3 goals and had 4 assists. In his seven games as a Red Wing in this year’s finals, he scored no goals and had just 3 assists. Pundits speculate that the pressure of his decision got to him. Understanding what makes leaders and non-leaders tick, we believe he performed poorly because of his desperation to win a championship; the same desperation that led him to chase instead of lead. The kind of desperation common in poor leaders.