Learning about leadership from the failures of Chip Kelly

I was at Petruce Et Al last week with Kristen when my phone started blowing up. I got a push notice from my NFL app that read “Eagles release Chip Kelly.” My heart dropped. I couldn’t believe it. Then Adam texted me. Aaron too. Beau got in on it. Jon was surprised as well. Even Megan asked how I was. To say the least, I was shocked and my friends new. At the time I was concerned. I didn’t want to hit the reset button. Despite the very disappointing season, I thought giving Chip another year at the helm was in order. As I listened and thought more about it, though, it made a lot of sense to me.

I think my first instinct to be disappointed was based on my protection of the Eagles’ leader. Allow me to share a story.

Last summer, on my way to King of Prussia for a seminary intensive (not unlike the one I am in this week), I called Angelo Cataldi. He’s the top sports talk radio host in the region. He was promising Jurassic World tickets, and so I called in to weigh in on my thoughts about Chip Kelly cutting offensive lineman Evan Mathis. I defended Chip and Angelo called me a “Chip Kelly apologist.” I was following Chip. One of his disciples.

At that point, Chip had won twenty games in his first two seasons, taking Andy Reid’s four-win team and turning them into a ten-win playoff team. Very impressive. He won the hearts of Philadelphians, myself included, after Andy’s fourteen-year tenure. Finally, new life. I still remember that first game against Washington with Mike Vick at the helm. I was wowed. Chip’s first impression stuck with me. I thought his fast-paced offense, his reliance on sports science, his obsession with “culture” was working.

So I suppose that’s the first lesson I learned about leadership from Chip. First-impressions matter. His first-impression in Philly bought him a lot of time and still brings many defenders of his to the forefront.

Chip’s was a controversial character in Philadelphia. He’s got a lot of nerve. After years of watching the Phillies struggle with the same, aging team, it was refreshing to see Chip cut some players that were superstars otherwise. DeSean Jackson was his first casualty. He ended us trading his star running back, LeSean McCoy, too. In some ways, he went against the popular opinion and did he what he thought he should do. He was widely criticized for these moves, and for many other cuts of his, but I still honor his nerve.

But Chip’s nerve bordered on arrogance. His arrogance moved to power-hunger. His power struggle with former-General Manager Howie Roseman led franchise owner Jeff Lurie to assign Chip complete power over personnel.

His power-hunger caused him to be immune to criticism and not a good listener. He had some great leadership qualities: innovation, nerve, drive. But he carried with them arrogance, smugness, and an inability to convince others of his perspective.

The sports media wasn’t buying what Chip was selling. Say what you will about the dysfunction of Eagles’ beat writers, but Chip did little to win them to his side. They matter because they influence the fans (and probably the players). His sarcasm, snippiness, and general distaste for his required press conferences were not helping his cause (it didn’t help that he ran a fast-paced offense in the pressers and ended up fielding a ton of questions). The only difference between him and Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch who protested his required interviews by repeatedly saying something like, “I’m only here so I don’t get fined,” was that brother Beastmode actually produced results.

Unfortunately for Chip, when he blew up the team in the off-season, demonstrating his nerve to continue to shove his ideas down his players throat (and cutting them if they disagreed), a lot of eyes were on him. Over the next 15 games, Chip lost nine of them. Some of the losses were national embarrassments to teams with lesser talent. He lacked people persons kills on one hand, and he didn’t have the results to allow his boss to ignore that fact. It’s hard to be patient with people who are snide, cutting, and arrogant. By the end of his tenure, the players seemed to have lost support for Chip, and truly, a leader’s followers (or lack thereof) speak more about him than anything. Lurie noted that and made a move.

I think Chip could’ve used another year, but evidently, he convinced no one of that point. Leaders are convincers, not entitled. He thought his power trip would just extend into the next year. Some are reporting that he was very shocked that he was fired. Arrogant and aloof.

Chip Kelly, in all of his flaws, tried to disrupt the homeostasis of the Eagles. He did so with a good first impression and a lot of nerve and conviction. He won my support. But he coupled those good things with terrible people skills, arrogance, and the inability to listen to the people around him. A bull in a china shop isn’t always the best disrupter of homeostasis. And now the Eagles are back to where they were, controlled by a back-stabbing GM (Howie Roseman) and possibly recruiting a coach that current works under their former coach. I guess it’s Andy Reid all over again.

At the About Making A Covenant meeting last week, I was talking about the leaders in Circle of Hope. One of the applications of our covenant is that we love them and respect them. That love and respect is earned by making love happen and producing disciples. They don’t have hierarchical power and our entire leadership is a team effort. It’s a chorus, not a solo. It is based on being a servant, becoming last. We are following Christ, the ultimate servant leader, the Word become flesh. He became human like us, lowering himself, to relate to us, to love us, and to know us. He’s the Good Shepherd, flipping the whole world upside-down.

A year ago, I wrote that disagreed with that decision the decision to give Chip Kelly ultimate power was bad leadership because it was not based on the mutuality, the servanthood, and the decency that Christian leaders should exhibit. My friend tells me that I shouldn’t expect leaders who aren’t Christians to act like humble shepherds. But I still think it’s the best way to lead people to follow Jesus and the best way to win football games.

-Jonny Rashid