A benefit on one’s journey to growing as a leader is that there will never be a shortage of opportunities to learn lessons from others in leadership; both from those doing leadership well, and from those who fall short. The purpose in recognizing bad leadership examples isn’t to judge or condemn those who fall short, as we all make our share of mistakes (my own errors could comprise an entire book). Rather it is to, first and foremost, examine ourselves to determine that we’re not indulging in similar behavior that can lead us into the same deep weeds as the perpetrator we’re learning from. If we are not exhibiting the defective behaviors we are encouraged to continue on the path we’re on, and if we have fallen into similar traps as those we are learning from we get a wake-up call to self-correct our course before the workplace or marketplace does it for us.
Following are two examples we can all learn from. They are excerpted from my upcoming book, Unstoppable, which releases in September. While I include insights from thirty-four high performers in all fields that give positive examples we can learn from in the book, I also include these two scenarios as criteria to evaluate and adjust our own behaviors by.
Tom Crean coached the storied Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball team for nine years, inheriting a program that had been on probation for three years and was at perhaps the lowest point in its 100-year-plus history. Not only did Crean save the program and turn it around, but he also led his teams to win two Big Ten Championships outright in his five final years at Indiana University, and three NCAA Sweet 16 appearances in the National Tournament. And every player who used their eligibility has graduated—every player.
In the 2015–2016 season, Crean’s team won the Big Ten Championship outright and made a Sweet 16 appearance in the National Tournament, and Tom Crean was voted Big Ten Coach of the Year. The following season, after losing seven of his 15 players to graduation, the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft, and a season-ending injury (as well as suffering several key injuries to star
players during the year), the Hoosiers still managed to be ranked as high nationally as number three, finish with a winning record, and beat two of the top-ranked teams in the country. However, at the
end of the season the Indiana University athletic director abruptly fired Crean.
Interestingly, three months earlier Indiana University’s head football coach had resigned under pressure from this same athletic director. There is a well-known axiom in organizations that when you
have problems in an enterprise, you do not fix it at the bottom or in the middle; that a fish rots at the head—it starts to stink at the top first. In this case, the evidence would point to the athletic director. In
organizations where weak leadership presides at the top, mental toughness among those working there is more essential than ever, so they stay focused on what they can control. You can also bet that any
success within that organization comes in spite of the rotting fish, not because of it. The people surrounding him or her are to be highly acclaimed.
On five occasions between late 2015 and early 2017 I engaged at Indiana University in a series of sessions to train the players, staff, and members of the athletic department in mental toughness
strategies and devising a personal unstoppable philosophy, as well as to teach culture and values. While dozens of personnel attended those sessions, I did not meet the athletic director, because he was absent from the meetings; thus I have no personal impressions to share. The comments, however, from beleaguered attendees that were shared with me after my sessions were unsettling, as they used adjectives relating to character and competence that I will not share here. There was consensus that he was unsupportive and did not have the backs of his people but was a puppet whose strings were pulled by wealthy donors and Varsity Club members. Accurate or not, this was the common perception shared by those working for him, and a prevailing culture of disgust and distrust was palpable.
Surprisingly, this same athletic director, who should be the most vocal champion of his staff, coaches, culture, and players, was negligently and noticeably silent when the notoriously fickle Indiana University fans booed their team at home games in Crean’s final season. At that point, a strong and effective leader could have made a positive and unifying statement for the fans to stick together and rally behind the team as it fought through injuries and developed the new players. In fact, an action like this would have helped build morale and trust, and demonstrate support for the players, coaches, and staff. But by his silence, he implicitly invited more of the same. The players, coaches, and staff deserved better.
While there isn’t space to discuss all the potential lessons we can learn from this scenario, here are a handful:
“Look in the Mirror” Lessons
- Do you show support for your team publicly and privately when they hit a rough patch, or are you only affirming when business is going well? Do they know you’re with them through thick and thin, or do you bail on them when things get tough?
- Have you become aloof, less visible, and less engaged, creating a perception you’re out-of-touch or indifferent?
- Do you attend training with your other leaders to demonstrate personal humility that you still have room to grow, to get on the same page with them, and so that you are able to collaborate with them afterwards to prioritize and enact what was learned?
- Are you insecure and do you feel threatened by strong team members working for you who have the courage to speak up, challenge you, and stretch you?
- Do you keep your commitments to your people so that trust is built? Do they believe you “have their back,” or are they under the impression you’re out to get them?
- Are you committed to daily looking for opportunities to positively impact those you’re most directly responsible for, or have you become so busy “presiding” that you no longer lead?
- Do you understand that if you are the person on top, and the people you are responsible for are “wrong,” that YOU are the one thing these people have in common and are ultimately responsible and must be accountable?
The Los Angeles Police Commission defines its purpose (as posted on its website) as follows:
“The Board of Police Commissioners, originally created in the 1920s, is comprised of five civilians who donate their time to the City while maintaining their professional careers. They are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council….
The Commissioners’ concerns are reflective of the community at large, and their priorities include implementing recommended reforms, improving service to the public by the Department, reducing crime and the fear of crime, and initiating, implementingand supporting community policing programs.”
On September 15, 2015, entertainment lawyer Matthew Johnson was elected president of the LAPD Police Commission after being appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti. This high-profile opportunity to serve comes with the massive responsibility to set a stellar example, citywide, for respecting the law and advocating law enforcement integrity and accountability.
In May of 2017, President Johnson was captured in a TMZ video advocating the vandalizing of the President of the United States’ Walk of Fame star on Hollywood Boulevard. His comments were then broadcast on TMZ’s nationally televised show. That is an extreme version of leading by example—a reprehensible example. The police commission president’s promotion of violence was a complete abdication of the commission’s stated purpose, and diminished the entire police commission and every member on it. Johnson’s irresponsible, immature, and hypocritical behavior has made law enforcement’s job more difficult in protecting the public property he publicly favored trashing.
He has created a mockery of his position as president of said commission, damaging any credibility he will need to hold law enforcement officials accountable for doing their jobs when he failed so miserably in his own duties to live out the commission’s purpose and promote law and order.
You might think that a leader appointed to promote law and order, yet demonstrating hypocrisy through such a divisive and destructive example, would be removed from his position by the mayor who appointed him, but there were no consequences for Johnson’s encouragement to destroy public property. In fact, Johnson’s actions were offhandedly dismissed because he claims to have said them “in
jest” and apologized for his actions.
“Look in the Mirror” Lessons
- Since there is more at stake when leaders demonstrate poor behavior, do you hold key leaders more, or less, accountable than front-line subordinates? Are you even more inclined to give more rope to those you personally promoted or mentored because they’re “yours?”
- Are you prone to publicly say foolish things “in jest” that you must later live down, apologize for, and do damage control for?
- Are you the most vocal and visible advocate for your organization’s core values, or do you think the values are for others to live by, while you operate according to a different and double standard?
- Do you expect others to dismiss your behavior simply because you apologize, and that an apology is a substitute for consequences?
The two examples and lessons given here could form the basis of an effective meeting with your leadership team to collectively look in the mirror and begin holding one another more accountable for leading by the right example.
Author: Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson, “Mr. Accountability,” is a leading international speaker on personal and corporate performance improvement. The author of 14 books and host of the wildly popular podcast, The Game Changer Life, Dave’s message has impacted leaders in nearly 70 nations. His “in-the-trenches” background of starting and running world class businesses, coupled with his relatable non-academic approach, creates an unmatched connection that resonates with audiences and moves them to action. Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveAnderson100