3 Key Takeaways From the Bengals' Wildcard Game Meltdown

3 Key Takeaways From the Bengals' Wildcard Game Meltdown

Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers

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There aren’t many things I love to watch more than playoff football. From the electric atmosphere in the stadium to the fan excitement leading up to game time to the actual game being played, it is simply do or die, win or go home, perform or be forgotten. The pressure is extraordinary, and there is very minimal room for error.

I am still absolutely stunned by what I witnessed while watching the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers battle it out on Saturday night during the American Football Conference wildcard playoff game. I am not a fan of either teams, so it’s important to note that this isn’t coming from a biased standpoint -- but I must admit that I am still very pissed about the situation.

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I know you are probably questioning why in the world I’d be pissed, if I’m not a fan of either team? Well, it’s simple. The Bengals easily had a chance to win that game and lost control of the one thing that athletes always have control over -- their composure. In my eyes, this isn’t just a loss. It’s a monumental loss that extends a whopping three-decade-long playoff drought all due to the poor decisions of mainly two key players on their defense.

What can we in the business world take away from this game? Actually there is a lot. 

1. Everything rises and falls on leadership.

Best-selling author and leadership expert John Maxwell says that "everything rises and falls on leadership” -- and I couldn’t agree more. Yes, the players play the game, and the coaches coach, however, do you think that a player playing for Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll or even at the college-level under Nick Saban would run into the locker room after an interception when the game isn’t over simply to show-off and celebrate? I highly doubt it.

There is a culture that has been established in the winning-most franchises, and it doesn’t tolerate arrogance or selfishness at the expense of the team. And that wasn’t the only moment during Saturday night’s game, where the strength of the Bengals leadership was questioned. Sure, the players are the ones who play the game, but as a leader, you are the one who instills what kind of culture, team dynamics and attitude you want your team to possess.

Everything rises and falls on your leadership. Watching along the sidelines as your players argue with officials play after play, receive back-to-back penalties for fighting, flagrant fouls and never corralling them to the sidelines to regain their composure ultimately cost the Bengals the game. This is where you as a coach assert yourself and your leadership. Your team should look to your leadership, and if they don’t, you will never be among the elite in athletics or business -- because they will run the show.

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2. The team is much bigger than you.

Football is a team game. You cannot win individually -- you will always win or lose as a team. We can only imagine the disappointment the rest of the team feels from the behavior displayed by a few select players. Now listen, I am a former NFL linebacker myself, and I know how hard it can be at times to control yourself under the pressure, noise, bright lights and the smack-talk. Yet I always knew it was bigger than me.

When you enter into that brutal summer training camp to start the season, you become a family. You suit up and go to battle day in and day out with these guys, and you are all striving to achieve the same goal -- win a Super Bowl.

As any winning organization in athletics or business knows, you are only as strong as your weakest link. You can have a Hall of Fame quarterback and star running back, but if your O-lineman doesn’t get the block and create a lane, you’re not moving the ball anywhere. There is an unspoken trust that everyone will show up and do their job. Your teammates trust that you can remain composed and levelheaded under pressure, and that you won’t throw away their chance at winning with your ego or cheap shots.

The same lesson applies to business. No matter how important your position, you need your boss to lead, your colleagues to perform, and your teammates to collectively work day in and day out to achieve your goals. The one person not performing will hold your team back. You may not be under the bright lights on national television, but the same principles apply.

3. Mental toughness will always prevail.

Mental toughness is an absolute necessity, whether we are talking about becoming a great athlete, entrepreneur or leader. I think we saw this at great lengths during this game over the weekend.

These are talented young men playing for it all. There’s a lot of testosterone, smack talking and a long-established rivalry between these teams. We expect it to be a showdown every time they meet, but as a playoff team, you also need to be mentally prepared for this.

Mental toughness can either play a crucial role in you winning -- or it can be your demise. The best teams and organizations understand the importance of mental toughness and its relativity to achieving the end goal. When you allow yourself to self-destruct and lose your composure, you are left with a battle of egos. And as we know in business, you’re not going to win with your ego.

In business, you too will feel pressures to perform, to meet deadlines, to make sales and to meet quotas. it is imperative that you don’t lose your vision of the end-goal and your mental toughness. Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. You must make it a priority to exercise your mental strength.

There are plenty of things we can takeaway from the battle of egos, lack of leadership and the weak culture the Cincinnati Bengals displayed in their national meltdown against the Pittsburg Steelers. We learned that establishing great leadership and culture, teamwork and mental toughness will always prevail. When all components are in alignment, you will have a recipe for elite success in both athletics and in business.

Related: 4 Ways to Build a Culture of Trust Culled From My Time in Pro Football