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  • Chris Gannett


Despite achieving an unblemished, undefeated season, FSU found itself on the outside looking in. Three lessons for leaders both on and off the field.

By Chris Gannett, South Florida Sun Sentinel Opinion, January 7, 2024.

The College Football Playoff stands as a pinnacle of achievement in collegiate sports.

Teams pour immense resources, dedication and strategy into earning a sought-after playoff spot and chance at a national championship. However, the selection process, as we have seen in past years, is widely considered flawed. Participants are chosen by a committee, and since the playoff format’s inception, the teams selected have been hotly contested by fans, the media and other stakeholders.

This year’s playoff decision was the most controversial.

Despite achieving an unblemished, undefeated season, Florida State University’s football team found itself on the outside looking in. The decision has spiraled into one of the most talked-about stories in recent memory, echoing beyond just sports headlines. It has catalyzed investigations and legal filings, ignited new discussions of potential conference realignment, and created ripples that touch every corner of collegiate athletics.

In the wake of Florida State’s defeat against Georgia in the Orange Bowl (in which the team was missing more than 20 players due to opt-outs, transfer portal and injuries), it’s important to extract broader leadership insights. Such adversities offer profound lessons in tenacity, strategic planning and the unyielding quest for greatness. Leaders across sports and business can derive pivotal insights from this setback, emphasizing the essence of regrouping, consistent iteration and learning.

The narrative extends beyond mere athletic rivalries, highlighting takeaways relevant not only to Florida State but also resonating with coaches across various sports and sectors. It accentuates core leadership principles such as adaptability, resilience and forward-thinking strategy.

Chris Gannett is a former American Idol CMO and President & Founder of Gannett.Partners

Lesson 1: Even when you succeed, you still might fail

Success, as Florida State was cruelly reminded, is a relative term. The team’s consistent, quality performance throughout the season, culminating in a conference championship, showcased its potential. However, the playoff committee’s decision to exclude the team despite its undefeated record (the first time an undefeated Power 5 conference champion was excluded from the playoff) underscores a poignant lesson in leadership: Triumphs on the field don’t always translate to recognition off of it.

Leaders must grapple with the unsettling reality that, even after achieving every milestone laid out before them, unforeseen challenges may emerge. The FSU situation serves as a stark reminder to always prepare teams not just for victory laps but also for unexpected hurdles and disappointments.

Lesson 2: Double down on what is within your control and let go of things that are not

The devastating mid-season injury to Florida State star quarterback Jordan Travis (who finished fifth in Heisman voting as one of the nation’s best players) was a turning point, changing the course of the team’s playoff hopes.

The unfortunate event emphasizes a crucial leadership principle: Focus intently on factors within your realm of control. While external circumstances in sports like injuries remain unpredictable, a leader’s response to them defines the team’s resilience. Leaders must cultivate a culture that embraces adaptability and prepares teams to face unexpected challenges head-on.

Recognizing the fine balance between proactive measures and letting go of uncontrollable factors empowers teams to navigate adversity with poise and determination.

Lesson 3: There’s no such thing as a consolation prize (except for learning)

While the playoff exclusion will long feel like a missed opportunity, Florida State’s tough loss (to an also arguably spurned Georgia team) in the Orange Bowl underscores another pivotal leadership insight.

Every opportunity, irrespective of its outcome, offers invaluable learning experiences. Leaders must cultivate a mindset that views each moment, whether on or off the field, as a platform to showcase excellence, regardless of its scale. Encouraging teams to embrace this perspective instills resilience and determination, emphasizing that failure isn’t the end but rather a feedback mechanism. It’s a chance to introspect, refine strategies and emerge stronger, armed with insights from setbacks.

The Florida State saga has transcended the realm of sports, resonating deeply with leaders across sectors. It underscores the multifaceted nature of leadership, emphasizing the need to navigate both triumphs and hardships with poise and reflection.

"True leadership transcends mere wins and losses; it’s about fostering resilience, instilling values and guiding people through tumultuous terrains."

True leadership transcends mere wins and losses; it’s about fostering resilience, instilling values and guiding people through tumultuous terrains. By prioritizing adaptability, celebrating incremental victories and fostering a culture of continuous learning, leaders can navigate the unpredictable waters of competition, transforming setbacks into springboards for success. As we reflect on Florida State’s journey, it becomes abundantly clear: Leadership is a journey, replete with challenges, triumphs and invaluable lessons that shape teams, forge character and inspire excellence.

Chris Gannett is a former American Idol CMO and the president and founder of Gannett.Partners, a Dallas-based firm that provides leadership coaching, operating advisory services and strategic capital solutions.

Read the original column published by the South Florida Sun Sentinel here.


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