Technical Foul: Leadership Lessons from the Rutgers Basketball Scandal

What leadership lessons can we learn from the firing of Rutgers coach Mike Rice?

If you’ve been following the news story about how now former Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice, was verbally and physically abusing his players, then you undoubtedly know that he was fired and his assistant, Jimmy Martelli, has also recently resigned and others at the university are also under investigation.

Why is this happening? Mike Rice has been shown in videos as a poor example of a leader – shoving, throwing basketballs, yelling gay slurs at players. Passion is important, how that passion is displayed, is also important. Now, we all have a different level of tolerance for “tough love” leadership; however, for those serving as role models for youth it’s a fine line. Mike Rice crossed that line – on more than one occasion.

New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, said it perfectly. This is not the type of example we should be setting for our young people.”

The Governor is absolutely correct. Most of us learn by example – by what we see and hear. Leaders need to set good examples for those they lead, whether on the court or in the boardroom. Rice’s example was a poor one.

What this shows is when you’re teaching someone to do something – if they don’t do it right – instead of encouraging them (and that’s not to say, particularly in sports, that a bit of tough love is discouraged when used appropriately) being physically or verbally abusive is an acceptable way to motivate them to perform. It isn’t.

“Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their player and motivate.” – Vince Lombardi

The evidence that this doesn’t work can be proved simply by looking at Mike’s record over 3 years as head coach, a measly 44-51. Now, this type of leadership style isn’t the only reason, however it is a contributing factor.

Sarcasm aside – whether you’re a coach, a CEO, an educator or a Governor – it’s your job to lead by positive example. It’s your job to lead the team – whether they are players, employees, or constituents – in a way that inspires others and make others want to follow you. Good leadership is about supporting and influencing in a way that makes others want to follow your lead, respect you, and trust you.

It’s the job of a good leader to create an environment in which people can fully develop their potential and actively participate to the fullest extent for the benefit of themselves and the group. Good leaders should never need to resort to belittlement, manipulation, or force.

Imagine how people would have responded if Governor Christie threw basketballs at those who ignored his warnings to evacuate before Hurricane Sandy? Imagine if a CEO yelled slurs at an employee for not grasping a concept they were trying to convey? They may not get fired, but they certainly will have a tougher time gaining support and high performance in the future.

Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. – Sam Walton

So how do you lead by example and gain high performance– getting people to follow, respect, and support your leadership?

Communication – Be transparent. If your team isn’t performing to what you think is the best of their ability, then tell them, and explain why. Offer some constructive criticism and ideas for improvement. Ask their opinions. Don’t scream and yell and throw a tantrum. People can usually tell when “something is up.” So before frustration mounts and productivity is impacted, communicate with your team. When trying to increase performance, making strategic decisions, determining changes, or facing issues that impact the team or organization, successful leaders need to be transparent and communicate with those they lead about the concerns, performance, how these matters arose, their thought process for improvement and how solutions or lack of action may directly impact those they lead.

Trust – Create a safe and trusting environment – this can’t happen if you’re verbally, emotionally or physically abusive to those you lead. Trust is a fundamental behavior for any relationship, both personal and professional. According to a study by the Hay Group, a global management consultancy, there are 75 key components of employee satisfaction (Lamb & McKee, 2009). They found that: Trust and confidence in top leadership was the single most reliable predictor of employee satisfaction and high performance. Trust must be earned. Leaders can earn employee trust by helping those they lead understand the overall strategy and mission, informing them how they contribute to achieving key goals, and sharing information with their team on both how the organization is doing and how a team member’s own performance is relative to organizational objectives. It is much easier for employees to trust a leader that supports their growth and development and shows a genuine interest in them.

Self Awareness – Be self aware. Successful leaders have a heightened level of self-awareness; they have an understanding of themselves, their behaviors and actions, and how those behaviors and actions are interpreted by, and directly impact, those they lead. I don’t think Mike Rice was wearing his self awareness hat. A good example of leadership self-awareness is exhibited in the U.S. Army’s leadership philosophy of “be, know, do.” Be proficient and competent, know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and do take responsibility and lead by example. Always be open to further growth and learning. Professional coaching is also a great way to help further develop leader self-awareness.

Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better. – Bill Bradley

So, what are you doing to be an example of positive leadership? Are you contributing to high performance or hindering long term success? Remember, whether a leader on the court or in the office – you’re a role model – so act like one!

About Scott Span, MSOD: is CEO of Tolero Solutions – an Organizational Improvement & Strategy firm. He helps clients in facilitating sustainable growth by connecting people –> performance –> profit™, creating organizations that are more responsive, productive and profitable.

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