What the NFL Has Taught Us about Ethical Leadership

Last week, the NFL completed what might be the worst week in its history. But before I get into it, let me first state this column is not about Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson; it is not about the NFL or sports of any kind; and it is not about morality (though I’ll admit morality has an important role here). It’s about effective leadership and ethical decision making during times of crisis, two concepts that are critical for ANY organization – and two concepts the NFL blew badly…

Like many reading this column, I’m a big NFL fan (born and raised in Kansas City, I’m a diehard Chiefs fan, and have adopted the Vikings as my hometown second team). But the last two weeks have been tough to watch, not only for the appalling acts of a few NFL employee-players, but also for how league and team leadership handled the situations.

First, there was the Ray Rice “incident.” For those of you who somehow missed it, Rice knocked out his girlfriend (now wife) back in February in an Atlantic City casino. The incident was reported to the NFL last spring or early summer, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down a two-game suspension. The punishment was met with outrage by the public as being too light. In response, the commissioner reconsidered, changing the NFL rules for future domestic violence cases to a mandatory six-game suspension for the first offense, then a lifetime ban for the second.

Personally, I applaud Goodell for changing his mind (good leaders aren’t afraid to admit their mistakes). And the new policy seemed appropriate, until TMZ released a security video actually showing the world the Rice assault (his left hook would have knocked ANYONE out, but the assault was so violent that she hit her head on the railing and was out cold). Rice was immediately cut by his team, the Baltimore Ravens, and then suspended indefinitely by the NFL. Again, I think the league got it right, but only in reactionary mode.

Then 72 hours later came the Adrian Peterson case. Living in Minnesota, I can say that “AP” was supposed to be “one of the good ones”: he’s one of the best running backs in the game, and appeared to be a solid spokesperson for the league. That was, until the news broke that he had been indicted by a Texas grand jury for felony child abuse – for severely beating his four-year-old child with a switch. Blood and scars were seen all over the child’s body (including the crotch, a location that usually is not acceptable for any type of discipline). The Vikings deactivated Peterson for one game (a good leadership move), but then lost that game 30-7, and then re-activated him the next day (a bad leadership move). A predictable firestorm erupted with fans, the media, and eventually sponsors registering their displeasure for how the Vikings handled the situation.

On the one hand, the Vikings got it right (which falls under the “there is never a wrong time to make a right decision” philosophy). But they got it right for the wrong reasons, calling into question the team’s leadership and decision making process

How the NFL and its franchise teams handled these two incidents (and there were three more, by the way, but I digress) left us with several questions:

  • In the Rice case, why didn’t the NFL gather all the evidence in the first place to determine an appropriate punishment?       They had months to ask the right questions and seek the right information (and if TMZ could do so, the massive, resource-rich NFL could have). Because they failed to do so, they had to react not once, but twice to eventually make the right decision.
  • And in the Peterson case, other than losing (badly) a football game, what new information compelled the Vikings to change their mind and re-instate Peterson? Furthermore, what information (other than losing several key corporate sponsors) compelled them to change it back and re-suspend him?       The Vikings clearly didn’t think through the ramifications of their decisions, and their decision-making flip-flops caused erosion of brand and the loss of sponsors.
  • In both cases, where was the league in all of this? Specifically, where was the commissioner? He didn’t make a scheduled appearance at the grand opening of the new San Francisco 49ers stadium Sunday night, and apparently cancelled several other appearances recently. Until Friday afternoon’s (fairly inert) press conference – which was 10 days after the Rice incident hit a crescendo and seven days after Peterson’s – Goodell was nowhere to be found. It’s not a good time for the league’s CEO to go into hiding.

So that there is no question of where I stand, I think both cases are terrible. Abuse of women and children are heinous crimes, in my opinion. But as I said at the outset, this column isn’t about morality and the crimes themselves. It’s about the NFL and its franchises, the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings. It’s about ethical decision making and effective leadership during times of trouble.

Unfortunately, this happens in all types of businesses, all types of organizations all across the US every day (just not as public, obviously). So what insights can we glean from how these two cases where handled that could benefit us all as leaders when we face difficult decisions, difficult situations? Here are five:

  • Organizations need crystal clear core values that guide decision making, that capture the culture – the traits, social mores, expectations, and personality – of the organization. Core values need to be articulated, understood, lived and used by all employees in making decisions. A lot has been written the last two weeks about the values of the NFL (its on-field violence potentially leading to off-the-field violence; its focus on profits over morals; and its emphasis on winning game over doing the right thing). We may have indeed seen their values reflected in how these abuse cases were handled.
  • Decisions need to made based on data – not on conjecture, not on intuition or gut feel. In the NFL cases, part of the challenge was that only partial information sets were available to leaders at the time they needed to make decisions, so the data didn’t fully reflect reality. And in both cases, the jury is still (literally) out, but I think ultimately we’ll find there was far more information that needed to be brought to bear. Such is usually true in the business world, so the lesson here is this: work hard to find the right, most complete data/information available, and then actually USE that data/information to make the best decision you can at the time.
  • Organizations and leaders need to think about the implications of their decisions – they need to play out scenarios, think three steps ahead (“if we decide this way, this might or probably will happen”).       I believe the Vikings and the NFL likely did this in both cases, but they incorrectly predicted public (and corporate) reaction. This is a hard skill for leaders to develop, because in some ways, it requires predicting (or at least anticipating) the future. But the time to try to anticipate the implications of a decision is BEFORE you make the decision. And if you’re using data, you’ll have a better shot at predicting the implications.
  • When leaders realize they made a wrong decision (Commissioner Goodell on the Ray Rice punishment, and the Minnesota Vikings on prematurely reinstating Adrian Peterson), they need to take accountability, apologize, and be visible to answer to critics. Goodell did this in August when he said he was wrong in only suspending players for two games when they’re accused of domestic abuse; the Vikings also did this last week when they apologized for not “getting it right” and then re-suspended Peterson. But in the first two press conferences, the Vikings owner Ziggy Wilf was nowhere to be found, and for over a week, the NFL commissioner was hiding in a virtual bunker – during a time that the league and its teams needs his leadership the most. Leaders must be visible, must set an example, must be accountable – especially during times of trouble.
  • Finally, leaders have to create an environment in their organizations where ethics are not just important to consider, but absolutely integral to decisions and behaviors. This obviously would reduce the number of occurrences of bad behavior like we’ve seen recently in the NFL. But it would also create an expectation for how leaders should react to those occurrences when they do happen. Clearly, the decisions made by the NFL and its teams the last two weeks have left the public wondering if winning football games, not ruffling the union’s feathers, or preserving corporate sponsorships was more important than “just doing the right thing.”       Consequently, the NFL has taken a major blow to its brand. Ethics HAVE to be at the center of all decision making. It starts with leaders making ethical decisions, and then creating an environment that supports (and requires) all other employees to do the same.

All organizations have to deal with challenging situations, be it employee transgressions, questionable business transactions of a customer or partner, or unfair practices from a competitor. How leaders handle these situations will be key not only to effective resolution if the issue itself, but also to building long-term trust with your stakeholders and preserving your brand.

What other insights do you have in ethical decision making? Want to participate in a discussion on this topic??  Visit our LinkedIn group and/or our blog our to post a comment!

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)
http://www.performanceexcellencenetwork.org

http://twitter.com/LassiterBrian

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