by Steve Adubato, PhD

“Normally, I’m a guy that really has the pulse of his team…I don’t think I had the pulse of our team the way I [have] in the past. When I met with players [yesterday], that became clear to me.”

This was what New York Jets football coach Rex Ryan had to say after his team’s disappointing end to the 2011 season. Forget about football. What Rex Ryan was saying as a leader is one of the most embarrassing things one can say in public—losing the “pulse” of your team. How does that happen? How do you NOT know that there is dissention and divisiveness among your team, when it is so publicly apparent?

What is so ironic about what coach Ryan had to say was that the person on the team who was most publicly disengaged and divisive, as the Jets were scrambling in the last game of the season, was Santonio Holmes. Why is this significant? Because it was Holmes who was wearing an oversized letter C on his jersey, designating him as team captain. We are talking the leader on the field. Rex Ryan, as the ultimate leader of his team, decided that his surrogate on the field would be Santonio Holmes—a guy who was relegated to the sidelines for constant arguing and complaining with other teammates because he wasn’t getting the ball enough.

What’s worse is that Holmes’ antics were nothing new. We all saw them in the first month of the season in which he had complained in the media and was fighting with other team members. As a leader, Rex Ryan had to know that. If he DID know, and didn’t do anything, that’s bad enough. But to say, after an entire season, that you didn’t have the “pulse” of the team? That is unimaginable.

What’s so disappointing about Ryan’s performance as a leader is that I have always been a fan of his passion and enthusiasm in the way he publicly communicates and advocates on behalf of his team. He has exuded confidence predicting a Super Bowl win and other accomplishments. He has inspired and motivated his players, which is one of the most important things any coach, leader or manager can achieve. But a leader’s job entails more than that, because when things go wrong, a great leader must step up and confront those problems head on. He MUST have the pulse of his team, particularly when that pulse is beating out of control as opposed to simply simmering under the surface.

Sometimes, as leaders, it is too uncomfortable for us to face serious problems in our organization. However, when we do this, inevitably these problems publicly explode and the situation is more difficult and complicated to address. So what happens in the case of the Jets? Rex Ryan holds a post-season press conference in which he breaks down, and explains his emotional reaction this way; “It’s hurtful. I’m extremely prideful. I want to be the best. I want to win. Sometimes it comes out like that.”

Bottom line? Communicating with emotion and passion is essential for any great leader, but losing the pulse of your team negates all of that. There is a huge lesson for the rest of us in listening to coach Ryan’s post-season analysis of what went wrong for his team. So how do YOU monitor the pulse of your team and your people? It’s a critical question that all of us in leadership positions must think about every day. If not, we pay a hefty price.