Friday, June 3, 2011

Ohio State’s Football Coach Offers Lessons In Leadership (or Lack Thereof)

If you’ve been following this blog, and read my last post, you’ll recall that I wrote about leadership, using Bo Ryan, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach, as an example. At the risk of being labeled a Big Ten one trick pony, this story about Jim Tressel, Ohio State's former head football coach, is too timely and interesting to pass up.

In summary, Mr. Tressel recently admitted to failing to pass along to his superiors information he had obtained about potential NCAA rules violations committed by his players. His failure to share that information itself was a significant violation of NCAA rules. His admission came after an investigation which uncovered several prior similar incidents that occurred under Mr. Tressel’s watch, tarnishing the coach’s previously stellar reputation. At best, Mr. Tressel seems to have been intentionally ignorant of his player’s transgressions, so as to shield himself from their improprieties. At worst, Mr. Tressel was the conduit through which some of the transgressions were arranged. In either event, he was not running the tight ship he professed to be running, apparently in an effort to attract top recruits to his football program.

My intention here is not to attack Mr. Tressel or his character. I don’t know enough about Mr. Tressel or these events to make those judgments. Rather, following up on my last post, I’d like to focus on leadership again, and how Mr. Tressel’s lack of leadership appears to have destroyed his once unblemished reputation and program.

Either explicitly or implicitly, Mr. Tressel created a culture where his players did not feel obligated to respect certain NCAA rules. Any organization, such as Ohio State’s football program, is a reflection of its leadership. If the leadership insists that things will be done a certain way, and imposes consequences for failure to follow the organization’s rules, then the members of the organization will respond accordingly. Either they will fall in line, or they will move on.

Here, it seems clear that Mr. Tressel did not have control over his players, or at least they believed that there would be no or nominal consequences for their failure to follow team and NCAA rules. He either permitted or tolerated his players’ cheating. That lack of leadership brought him to the point where he had to resign in disgrace.

This whole saga reminded me of a conversation I had with an entrepreneur friend a few weeks ago. He mentioned, without complaining, that he was having difficulty finding the right employees for his business. He runs a successful web design company, with fewer than 15 employees. He is completely maxed out on capacity right now, and is starting to turn away projects because he doesn’t have enough employees to meet the demand.

He is not, however, willing to hire just anyone so that he can begin accepting additional work. He is methodically networking with and interviewing potential candidates to find the right fit for his company. He even suggested that he may be getting a bit too picky in his effort to find the right person, but that he would rather be too picky than not picky enough. To him, what distinguishes his company from his competitors is his company’s culture. He is not willing to risk that by bringing in an employee who is not a good fit, even if it would result in increased revenue in the short-run.

His leadership is setting a tone for the organization, and establishing that the company’s culture is a significant priority and will not be diminished to satisfy short-term goals. His employees will understand and appreciate that, and to the extent they don’t, they shouldn’t be surprised when they find themselves among the unemployed. Presumably, that should not be a problem, as it was his leadership that attracted the employees he has today, and who make up the culture of the company he values.

When leadership sets the right priorities, employees and the organization will follow suit. Similarly, when leadership sets the wrong priorities, or fails to set priorities, employees will also respond accordingly. Mr. Tressel’s failure to establish a culture of accountability set the stage for his resignation this past week.

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