Vontae Mack: No Matter What
Prophetic decision-making in a world of consensus
This is not a sports post.
If you start to think it is and you’re tempted to back out of reading, write down on a piece of paper, “This is a sports post,” stick it in your pocket, then read this with an open mind…
It’s NFL Draft Day.
It’s the day, weekend really, where hope springs eternal (for at least the next six months or so) for 32 professional football teams and their fan bases for the most popular and profitable sports league in the United States.
Draft Day is also the title of a Kevin Costner movie dramatizing the decision-making and pressure surrounding the general managers of those teams, Kevin Costner’s character being one of them. The movie came out nine years ago and has a mediocre Rotten Tomatoes rating of 60%; not rotten but not certified fresh either. But I have a confession, I’ve seen this movie multiple times in the past couple of years for a couple of reasons:
I love the research, interpretation, strategy, and prophecy involved in the draft process.
One of the leadership metric tools businesses and organizations use is called Strength Finder. The test and tools behind Strength Finder were gobbled up by longtime metrics company Gallup. The test is designed to reveal your top five strengths and have you focus on them. My number one strength according to my results is Strategic. They define it this way:
People exceptionally talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
This strength is probably why different ministries and organizations have used me as a consultant (or strategist) on how to diagnose and address shifts in mission and internal culture and why, even before I started living my call to ministry, I was a frequent member of search committees at the university I worked at. I try and understand what kind of culture exists and what culture is desired and then develop a strategy to get there or help people identify the type of person that’s going to help them get there. It’s never about who I like or want personally, it’s who is the best fit for who the team is and where the team is trying to go.
The NFL Draft has an immense impact on the future trajectory on a team. In 2017, the Buffalo Bills traded a first round draft pick that they traded to Kansas City and KC gave up a lot to move up from Pick #27 to Pick #10. Most everyone thought Buffalo got a steal of a deal; they needed a quarterback but the 2017 class was considered weak and the next year’s was talented and deep (they took Josh Allen in 2018.) Who did KC take with Buffalo’s pick?
Josh Allen has been good for Buffalo. But Mahomes has been great; he’s won two Super Bowls for Kansas City. Buffalo followed good, sensible, conventional wisdom, but Kansas City did something different; they didn’t listen to convention. They didn’t need a QB; Alex Smith had played well for them the previous season. And that leads me to the second reason I’ve rewatched that movie lately:
Watching the perilous position of a leader going against convention and consensus for his or her gut conviction.
Strength Finder was created largely to be a business tool. The Bible outlines something similar with the different roles of ministry and parts of the body. In the opinions of people who have known me a long time, I’m a prophet (I could have told them they would say that.) I tend to see things a little sooner than others. That certainly goes with the strategic in me but I arrive at the strategies like a math wiz before I’m able to show my work.
In the church world, leaders and pastors are often split into three categories: prophets, priests, and kings. Priests care for the sheep, kings organize and administrate the flock and the fields they graze in, and prophets forecast and communicate when to stay in the meadow and when to move to another pasture to better feed the sheep (or avoid an impeding harsh winter.) Jesus is the perfect prophet, priest, and king, but none of us is perfect and so, like a personality test, organizations need a healthy balance of all three.
The reason Draft Day resonates with me is Costner’s character is tasked with setting the course of an entire organization and fanbase that’s tired of losing and it’s his job to make the call. The safe call, the one that has the highest odds of protecting his backside, is going with consensus and convention. Shared responsibility in the decision. But the prophetic call is to trust his counter-consensus interpretation of the bigger picture. This home for my columns is called “Rolling the Dice” for many reasons, but certainly everyone around Costner’s character sees him as reckless rolling the dice and passing on the safer choice. Which leads me to my last point:
Following convention and consensus is rolling the dice just as much as going with a strategy that goes against consensus because of your conviction.
Spoiler Alert (the movie has been out over nine years after all:) Costner, in the very beginning of the movie and the morning of the NFL draft, writes something on a piece of paper and puts it in his pocket. We don’t see what he wrote but we do see Costner thoughtfully consider and wrestle with all of the strong opinions of talent scouts, players, agents, his new coach, and the team owner throughout the movie. Later, Costner’s love interest, played by Jennifer Garner, finds the note, reads it, and tells him to trust his gut to build the team that he believes in. The crumpled up note says,
“Vontae Mack: No Matter What.”
This lesson has been such a powerful lesson on decision-making in a team environment for me and I’m still trying to learn it. Write a note of powerful conviction based on what you know to be true and what you believe to be true (but might not know it for sure yet) and put it in your pocket. Then go into deliberating with others with an open mind, draw on others instincts, observations, and opinions, and try not to let how dug in you are show, then after you exit the conversation, pull that note back out. Are you still convinced by your first conviction or is the consensus the right course?
I’ve shared this with other people that had strong convictions about a matter but were headed into a consensus of opposition. For those that like to fight, like me, I tell them it allows other people in the room to truly be heard without me feeling like I’m being defensive or dismissing their opinions. For those that tend to be talked out of their conviction regularly, I remind them that after they leave the board room, that note is going to give them the final word in the discussion; their own words will be ringing in their ears instead of a louder voice in the debate.
Again, I’m still learning this.
When we learn to listen and consider other viewpoints without losing our conviction, it really is a case of iron sharpening iron. But you might be thinking, “Isn’t a culture of convention and consensus safer and lower risk?”
Ask the Buffalo Bills GM if he wished he could make that 2017 pick again. If he’s honest (he won’t be,) he’d say “yes.”
You might still believe that a culture of convention and consensus is, over the long term, a safer and lower risk approach. But there’s also another massive risk in always following convention and consensus that isn’t that apparent:
You’ll either drive off prophets or try and turn them into priests or kings because you’ll seemingly have no need for them and their God-given gifting.
It’s like the Disney movie, “Encanto” and the song, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”I won’t spoil that movie, go watch it (91% on Rotten Tomatoes.)
When you see that convention (we’ve always done it this way) and consensus (this is what most of us want) is just as much of a roll of the dice as vision (we need to do something innovative) and prophetic conviction (we’re doing this anyway,) then it becomes easier to see that we really need God. What do we need him for?
For courage, to hold to our conviction when the consensus says different.
For humility, to put our conviction in our pocket and listen and consider that others may be right.
For trust, to know that, whichever way we go, God is not done teaching us to grow in both courage and humility.
Ok, pull that note you wrote out of your pocket; was this a sports post?
Happy Draft Day 2023!