I have in the past professed my love of Tim Tebow on this blog. What I loved about Tebow last year was that he represented a disruption of the status quo and a poke in the eye to “the experts.” Tebow’s play illustrated that there might be a way to win football games in the NFL that doesn’t fit the formula. I love that.
But, as Tim Tebow is traded to the Jets this week, I am reminded that Tim Tebow also represents something that I really loathe. Tebow had become popular in Denver–really, really popular. And that popularity is largely what gained him the opportunity to be on the field last year to have the opportunity to show his stuff. And, as he played and won a few games, he became more popular even being given disproportionate credit in wins that he probably deserved. And his popularity became bigger than his talent. Don’t get me wrong, Tim Tebow is a talented football player. You don’t make it to the NFL without being the best of the best. But, I think even he would admit that he’s far from having mastered the skills of being an elite NFL quarterback.
Tebow’s popularity had literally overwhelmed the Broncos organization. John Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, couldn’t make a critical comment of Tebow as a team executive without being crucified by the fans. And, at the end of the day, football is about selling tickets. So, Elway and the coaching staff seemed to be stuck with Tebow because of his suffocating popularity–not because of his talent or abilities. So, they did the only thing they could. They went all in on another, better and more proven popular quarterback in Peyton Manning and unloaded Tebow to another team.
Popularity is powerful. And it can be like a cancer on people and organizations. I remember the crippling desire for social popularity that started in junior high school. The need to have the right clothes, say the right things, hang out with the right people. (If you don’t remember this, that means you were one of the popular kids. Congrats.) Thankfully, in absence of coolness I had smarts, so I was popular with the teachers and I’m sure that meant I had a lot of benefits that I didn’t even recognize (for more on this, read Joe Gerstandt’s series of posts on privilege this week–powerful stuff).
The desire for popularity pulls people towards conformity. It distracts from doing the work that matters. It makes us ask the question “What will they think” rather than “What’s the right thing to do.” Sadly, our organizations are hurt daily as popularity rules in management. To climb the ladder in most organizations means having amassed the popularity to win the support of the “people who matter.” We see talented and skillful people passed over for promotions all the time because they aren’t popular enough. Certainly, we know better than to use the word “popular” so we use the terms “exposure” and “visible” and “socialized” but deep down, we know it’s about popularity.
As leaders and as talent cultivators, we’ve got to learn to recognize the difference between talent and popularity and then critically, to put talent before popularity. If your talent and ability gains you popularity, that’s great. But, popularity can not be allowed to trump talent when it comes time to make decisions that impact the future of our organizations. Will we promote the person who is widely liked or will we bet on talent? Sometimes, you get lucky and someone like Peyton Manning (who is popular and talented) walks through your door, but most of the time it’s one or the other.
Here’s the question: will you have the courage to bet on talent even if it means your own popularity is impacted?