Here’s an embarrassing admission: I’m a lifelong Jets fan. If you need proof that the organization is considered a laughingstock, a 2019 article in Inc. magazine is titled, “Want to Be a Great Leader? Look to the New York Jets—and Then Do the Opposite.”

Yet many fans and teammates tout the leadership abilities of quarterback Sam Darnold. Jet fans were torn about keeping him until, shortly before this article went to press, he was traded to the Carolina Panthers for three draft picks. There were strong arguments for keeping him, though. He addresses the media, win or lose. He commands the huddle, encourages and exhorts players on the sideline, and plays with confidence.

The problem is that he stinks. Or better said, he has delivered poor results.

The team’s collective record during his three years as a starter was 13-35. The football analysis website PFF grades Darnold as the 46th best quarterback out of 55 since 2018. He ranks 51st in passer rating. His best year was as a rookie, and his numbers have progressively fallen.

Darnold apologists note that he has had health setbacks, had to learn multiple offensive schemes, received poor coaching, and had subpar personnel around him. That’s all true. They also cite his exemplary leadership and unflappable disposition.

However, he makes poor throwing decisions, is prone to interceptions, and can be fooled by complex coverage schemes. Those factors ultimately led the Jets to trade him and likely use their first-round draft pick on another quarterback (the NFL draft
will have just taken place at the time this article is published).

Which raises the question: Can a security executive be a good leader, but a poor practitioner? Are there Sam Darnolds in the security world, and should there be?

To answer those questions, I summoned the assistance of security executive recruiters.

It’s certainly true that a Chief Security Officer (CSO) can be effective without a technical mastery of security, observes Mike Hurst, director, HJA Consult. “You don’t need to know how to specify a camera lens,” he points out. “You have people who can do that.”

In fact, a CSO, like any executive, should be assessed on the value they bring to the overall business — beyond the scope of their immediate department. But what if a CSO is strategic, inspirational, dedicated, empathetic, and beloved — but not really great at the job?

Security Management Resources CEO Jerry Brennan (a fellow columnist for this magazine) has seen every type of security executive during his decades as a recruiter. And he’s seen Darnolds — fine leaders who just couldn’t execute. That’s less of a problem when an organization has the resources to hire additional staff or outsource responsibilities where the CSO is deficient, Brennan says, and when the CSO does so wisely.

Yet many security departments are lean, calling upon the top security executives to take on more tangible roles than head cheerleader or chief strategist. The CSO may be called upon to prepare a budget, evaluate technology, or carry out a business resumption plan. All the leadership skills in the world can’t conjure up solutions for these responsibilities.

Brennan acknowledges, though, that some CSOs remain in roles by force of personality or popularity among a key cadre of staff and corporate leadership. Others have high profiles and outstanding connections in the security and government communities, so their lack of internal contribution is ignored, and direct reports pick up the slack.

The upshot, he says, is whether the CSO can satisfy the employer’s specific performance objectives.

Hurst agrees. Reaching back to the sporting world, he recalls a pedestrian player who thrived because of his outstanding leadership. British cricketer Mike Brearley, described as a “modest batsman,” nonetheless was selected for the England team because he could coax the best performances out of his teammates. Empathy, resourcefulness, tactical knowledge of the game, and coaching players out of anxiety contributed to endowing him with a critical slot in the lineup despite having average batting ability.

In a world driven by hard metrics and key performance indicators, it’s difficult for a security executive to get by with substandard skills. Consider a VP of Loss Prevention who must deliver a sub-2% shrinkage rate and sub-20% turnover of corporate and divisional loss prevention staff. She may be innovative, dynamic, and widely respected, but if she delivers a 3% rate of shrinkage and 22% turnover, she faces an uphill battle keeping her job.

In Brearley’s case, though he was an average athlete at best, his team produced exceptional results. Otherwise he might not have lasted. As Hurst says, “You could be a great person, but if the margins are bad, ‘Sorry, mate.’”

Darnold may be getting another chance because he was so highly regarded coming into his profession. Would you get a second chance?