Leader’s Toolkit

“Calling Audibles” – Lessons from Leaders on the Field

Sports sometimes offers up a great example that lends itself to the practice of leadership, and, more to the point, explains why some leaders are more effective than others. Such was the case a few months ago when I sat watching the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning move his team down the field with great skill, shouting the now familiar and bittersweet- Omaha, Omaha, Omaha!
Manning is an exceptional quarterback, able to throw the short and long pass with great accuracy and finesse. He is similar to the CEO who brings great knowledge and technical depth to the task and gets it done, whether by getting the ball into the end zone or making quarterly projections - impressive feats. But as I watched Manning move his team forward, I started to notice how he would come up to the line of scrimmage, settle into his stance for the hike and then start to point and yell things like BLUE- BLUE, x27, followed by less intelligible things that only his teammates understood and could act upon. And act upon, in fact, often capitalize upon it, they did.

What was happening? I am sure many of you football fans are way ahead of me on this - recognizing that he was coming to the line of scrimmage with a play called and communicated to his teammates. But, once seeing what was going on in front of him (looking at key players across on defense, how they were lined up, who was covering whom, and noticing if there were mismatches, past patterns of opportunity, or areas of vulnerability,) he was changing the call and alerting his teammates (co-workers) of the new play and, with it, what was expected of them. TO me, this was a fascinating glimpse into competitive advantage in sports and offering lessons and new behaviors that might be useful in leading a company or organization in this new and complex era of leading successfully.

What factors were in play that set the stage and provided the necessary conditions?

Vision and Noticing

Manning had the vision to look out over the landscape and see the possibilities. He was able to grasp the situation and formulate a plan on the fly. He paid attention to the signals and converted those observations into a strategy and executed in a few seconds. He saw patterns and grasped their importance. For a leader “in the moment”, the observations and related opportunities might reveal themselves just as spontaneously and require agility and grace. The key is figuring out what you are seeing and, more importantly, what it means and how it informs your next move.


It was very clear to the observer that he and his teammates had gone through many dress rehearsals to prepare themselves for these possibilities. It would be safe to assume a conversation was held prior to the game during which lots of voices shared their perspective, knowledge of their competitors, and suggestions. Does the climate and design of your organization’s meetings lend itself to this type of exchange? Is there an open dialogue? How do you, as the leader, facilitate?

Depth of knowledge

of players (positive and negative) - To act with this type of agility and pull it off requires the right players possessing the necessary skills. It also calls for in-depth of knowledge of your teammates, how they shine, what they don’t do especially well, and how they need to be directed. In fact, on one play Manning literally moved a receiver from one side of the field to the other, leading him by the hand and whispering to him as they shifted. The question for the leader and the members of the team- how well do you all know your collective strengths and weaknesses? Candor and the capacity for objective assessment is crucial. The bottom line- Understand (know) your team and build on your strengths.


Imagine what level of trust it takes to pull off a change of plans, act on it, and succeed. Think about the high price we attach to doing things right and avoiding mistakes. It seems to shout out- “stay with the plan”. Taking advantage of an opening like we are discussing here also opens the door for failure. Everyone is vulnerable, with the leader drawing most attention, since he, like the quarterback is the initiator. Our mutual commitment to the team and our risk tolerance all contribute to a willingness to be exposed and take the chance. In these scenarios accountability is an active ingredient. The foundation for this, that creates the necessary conditions, is a strong base of trust. It grows out of a reliance upon one another, usually resulting from testing and experience. In the end it is probably the single most powerful factor in succeeding with change. Leaders need to cultivate a culture of trust.


One of the fundamental keys to sports success is consistency. Top notch athletes perform well as the result of muscle memory and prescripted performance. Calling an audible and pulling it off requires flexibility and agility. In those instances where an opportunity suddenly appears you must be able to capitalize. The lesson here for leaders: practice intellectual flexibility and be prepared to embrace a new idea, not your own. Think about the team’s buy-in to a shared vision, and the degree folks are empowered to act and take initiative. Consider clarifying and broadening decision rights, and get good at delegation. It reminds me of the companies that struggle with executing a strategic plan that was designed for another time, a different environment, and is unknown to those who are being asked to carry it forward.


Capturing the possibilities demands great communication. Manning’s teammates enjoyed a level of mutual understanding that enabled them to go off script and anticipate where he was going. If you as a leader agree that this factor is crucial you may want to evaluate the quality of the communication practices and behaviors. Ask yourself- To what extent does a common, meaningful vocabulary exist? Is there a mechanism to solve confusion? Do team members act in ways that conform to the message? Since “code” (hand gestures, winks and nods, bizarre word combinations etc.) are used and changed, is there an active clarifying and updating practice that is shared? (last week a hand salute meant go right, today it means you are getting the ball). And finally, is it clearly understood that things are fluid, so be agile.


In this, as in most companies, relationships are huge. Their accompanying benefits are numerous. Even though it is assumed that when trust, self-awareness, and accountability are in place, positive working relationships will exist, intentional efforts are needed to make it a certainty. The success of a team like the Denver Broncos, as well as the team you lead, depends upon it. As the leader you must continually act to ensure relationships are in place, and when problems flair, take steps to get things on solid ground. Reinforce the importance of solid relationships and display behaviors that show the way.


Whether walking up to the line of scrimmage or standing in front of your team at a crucial meeting the same emotions are evoked and skills triggered. Both involve considering the possibilities, evaluating the options and either staying with the plan or occasionally deciding to take a different path, and “calling an audible”. Thoughtful execution produces success. Great moves will be met with thunderous applause and admiration.
Are audibles in your playbook? To be successful takes a lot of hard work and preparation. If you have a good team, strong leadership, right culture- Go for it.