Football Leadership Follies

September 21st, 2014   •   no comments   

The recent headlines regarding the National Football League’s handling of domestic abuse issues certainly create a visceral response in just about everybody. Emotion is front and center, whether in support of the victims or the players. After the emotion is set aside, we are faced with a variety of issues and nuanced arguments.

Many of these issues are consistent with those faced by business owners of all sizes every day.  They include core values and the behaviors that support them; decision making and critical thinking; leadership and communication; protection of the brand and aligning brand with corporate culture; and juggling multiple agendas.  They also include considering the needs of all stakeholders, both internal and external.core values

In an ideal business world, vision, mission, values, culture, brand, strategy and tactics are all aligned. All employees know what the company wants to achieve and they know how to go about doing it. They know there are consequences for actions, and they expect all to beheld accountable for their behaviors. There are few gray areas. Obviously, that is not the case in the NFL.

From watching and reading of all that has been going on, it appears that:

  • Issues of domestic violence have been around for a long time. (fifty plus cases in recent years)
  • The NFL has handled those that have been publicized on an ad hoc basis, without having a strong policy or making a strong stand against it. The NFL has probably swept a number of such instances, especially where charges were never brought, under the rug. It seems that the NFL’s large security department learns about, investigates and reports back to the Commissioner on these instances, and as little as possible is done about them. Clearly nobody has thought about the messages being sent by the subjective manner in which these cases are being handled.  Behind the scenes, there is probably much conversation and negotiation by the teams to minimize the punishment dished out by the league.
  • The primary agenda of the league is to make money for the owners. The Commissioner is the point person for the owners, who  are all about money.
  • In order to maximize the earnings, the Commissioner must protect the brand. The brand is tarnished by bad publicity, thus the hard work of minimizing that publicity is crucial. Of course, he could protect the brand by strictly punishing bad behavior, but he has chosen another tactic.
  • The NFL does not seem to have its own moral compass, so that even if they have core values, they do not consistently live them.  moral compass
  • The messages coming from the league and the individual teams are not consistent, vacillate wildly and change from day to day.
  • Each team handles matters differently. Each talks about protecting the individual rights of the players who “are innocent until proven guilty.”  But they are really thinking about winning and making money.

Everyone has rights. The victims have the rights afforded them by the law. The accused have rights. And the teams (i.e. the company) have rights. How can they all be jived?  Where does fundamental fairness to all reside?

Under the law, defendants are innocent until proven guilty. But companies should be guided by more than just the law. There should be company policy that reflects the core values of the organization. If someone is accused of something that is felonious, how should the organization behave? It needs to show its stakeholders, both internal and external, its values and beliefs. The first action should be by the team and it should be based on company policy. That action should be clear and it should be quick.

In the case of football, the league also has disciplinary and regulatory power. The league should have its own code of conduct which comes into play as well. It may not always be exactly consistent with that of each team. Perhaps it should be stronger. And the commissioner should be vocal and should be a leader, stepping up and stating unequivocally what the decision is. Commissioner Goodell’s  statement was unsatisfactory because,  while he admitted making a mistake, he provided no information that could really be used to ascertain how the league had actually behaved.

All of the apologies seemed to be based on the fact that the press presented evidence of poor handling by the teams and the league.  They were sorry they got caught, not sorry they had acted poorly. Nobody behaved well.

Organizations need to examine their core values and determine exactly what behaviors are acceptable and what are not.  They need to consider how employees accused of crimes will be handled. And they need to consider the impact on other employees, customers, vendors, shareholders and the public. They must think about their culture and their  brand and how their decisions impact the perception of both.

Issues such as this are complex ones for organizations, especially if they try to juggle the rights of all of the parties. They are made easier if there are strong policies based on clear core values. Zero tolerance policies carry teeth. And tough consequences.

Business owners need to stand up and show courage and integrity. It is part of being a great leader. It is part of setting a tone inside an organization. It is part of creating and building a powerful external brand.


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