Working While Sick: The leadership failure that tanked the Kansas City Chiefs this week

career coaching company culture work life balance Oct 30, 2023

People. We need to talk about WORKING WHILE SICK.

Yesterday, millions of KC football fans watched this unfold on the field at Mile High Stadium as the Chiefs lost to the Broncos for the first time since 2015.

In the center of all of this?

Patrick Mahomes, the stomach flu, and bad decisions.

How this playing while sick mess started this week

The whole Mahomes family had some sort of stomach nonsense go through their house in the days leading up to the game.

Mahomes was even listed on the injury report for Sunday because he'd had to take IV fluids in the 24 hours or so leading up to the game.

As late as just a few hours before the game, Mahomes was still listed as questionable for the day.

Mahomes's Decision

Ultimately, Mahomes started the game. Like most pro athletes - especially elite quarterbacks -  he never wants to miss a game. 

He wants to lead the team to victory using the game plan the team worked on all week. 

And based on watching him play for the Chiefs for a few years, a few playoff runs, and a few Superbowls, I guaran-damn-tee he told Coach Reid that his decision was he wanted to play.

Understandable - and common, even if not a smart move.

Coach Reid's Decision

As much as Mahomes wanted to play and almost certainly insisted he was fine to do it, the decision was not entirely his.

Yup, turns out teams have coaching staff for a reason.

And the ultimate decision about whether a quarterback who is sick with the flu should play a game *at freaking altitude in snowy weather* rests with Coach Andy Reid. 

And in my opinion, he failed spectacularly at this decision.

The Results of These Decisions

The results of the decisions by Mahomes and particularly Reid?

A spectacular  $#!tshow of a performance in the game by not just Mahomes, but the whole offense. 

Turnovers galore, and a poor offense led by someone who looked like he needed to be on the couch eating saltines and ginger ale instead of taking snaps.

Heck, the only Chief scoring any points was the (utterly amazing) kicker Harrison Butker.

The worst part of this whole mess

As if the loss itself wasn't bad enough, the thing gets worse when you consider that it wasn't necessary to play Mahomes at all.

See, the Chiefs have a perfectly good QB backup, Blaine Gabbert, available.

And Andy Reid chose not to play him.

The Chiefs were deprived of several things here...most importantly, the opportunity to let a teammate who wasn't ill take his shot to lead a game that has lower stakes, so he's got a solid rep if and when a higher-stakes situation comes up.

All in all, as a Chiefs fan, if a loss was going to happen I would 100% rather have it at the hands of a QB that is growing and learning than at the hands of a QB that doesn't know when he needs to sit down, and a coach who won't make the hard decision to do so.

A few perspectives based on comments in other forums...

I posted an abbreviated version of this post on Facebook and LinkedIn earlier today, and had some interesting perspectives shared that I want to unpack real quick.

Perspective #1: It's different for athletes - you can't expect them to bow out when sick.

A few people pointed out, correctly, that pro athletes train from the time they are small children to go out and play their hardest to take care of their team.

I get that. I have personally known some incredibly high-achieving athletes in a couple of sports, and I see how this manifests in many situations.

But here's the thing: when your success and the success of your team depends on your mental and physical health to the degree a pro athlete does, that speaks to a need to be MORE conscientious about these decisions not less.

Perspective #2: This isn't Pat Mahomes Fault

A lot of people pointed out that the culture of when to work and when to rest and get better comes from the top down, so it's not really his fault that he played. 

I agree with this *partly*.

I do think that Andy Reid screwed up here.

He made a decision that makes it appear that team members are not allowed to get better. 

He lost an opportunity to help a team member get healthier, and another opportunity to let his backup QB get some reps. No debate there.

But there is another nuance to consider when thinking about the top-down leadership angle.

Patrick Mahomes IS the top player on the team.  He's the MVP, the starting QB, and in many important ways, the heart of the team.

So every person on the team now has a coach AND a peer player who has modeled that playing sick is expected. 

Perspective #3 - It's OK to play sick because players prepare their whole lives for momentous events. 

I am actually *partially* on board with this idea.

We actually saw it play out with Patrick Mahomes back in February when he played the Super Bowl with a high ankle sprain.

That is a much, much better example of a momentous event. 

The team was playing for all the marbles and the game was close AF.

Also, he had medical staff working on that ankle every time the KC offense was off the field, and everyone knew he wouldn't have to take a snap again after that game until July when training camp started.

This week's game in Denver?

It was pretty much the opposite of a momentous event. 

It was a Week 8 game against a team with a losing record.

That's the football equivalent of sitting in a project status meeting on a random Tuesday afternoon.

Perspective #4 - Kerri Strug did the same thing at the 1996 Olympics to win gold

This comparison makes no sense in so many ways, it's weird to bring into this discussion - but I had comments and DMs from like 4-5 people so I guess I need to. Here we go:

  • Strug was participating in an event where a backup could not be swapped in like Reid could have swapped in Gabbert at QB.
  • The stakes for the 1996 Olympic Gymnastics Finals is nothing remotely like the stakes for a week 8 NFL game.
  • Strug also was a teenager training under a coach who was notorious for being verbally and psychologically abusive to many elite gymnasts for decades. Hardly the kind of situation we'd want to model.

I could go on but you get the idea.

So what does this have to do with your career?

People act like Mahomes and Reid with their work ALL.THE.TIME.

Individuals go to work sick, sometimes infecting teammates, and not operating at their peak.

Managers let it happen by seeing sick people show up and not encouraging (or demanding) that they take the time to get better.

And along the way, everyone insists that they "have to" do this because they are "so busy."

The problem with that mindset?

Most of the time the "I have to" is rooted in nothing but nonsense like deadlines you weren't going to hit in the first place and expectations that make no sense.

Yes, I know it can be hard AF to stay home. There are a few VERY RARE times when it makes sense to keep trucking along even if you feel like 💩.

Many of us experienced some of these circumstances during the hardest parts of COVID in 2020.

But let's be real - they are a helluva lot less frequent than we and our bosses twist our brains into believing it is.

If you're working in an environment that prioritizes facetime and meeting that should have been an email higher than the health and wellness of team members and you need help figuring out how to find a better situation, I've got you.  Contact me today and let's talk.