The Leader’s Dilemma

Channel surfing can have its serendipitous moments, and I was the benefit of two of them this week. Each had strikingly different content. One of them showcased the best of our American society; the other, the worst (yes, it feels like we’ve seen a lot of that lately). What follows below is the tale of two leaders. Despite the stark differences, I believe there is reason for hope, and we can all participate!

Many of you know that I work with teams to help them reach their full potential. I’m always interested in the quality of the leaders I work with. As the leader goes, the team goes. The leader establishes cultural norms, values, and “how things get done.”

There is almost always a “career defining” fork in the road. A tough leadership or self-leadership decision regarding people on your team, or someone who works for you, or with you. And in that moment, our “true north” is revealed. Winning at any cost is a leadership choice. Helping a team value the “we” over the “me” is a leadership choice, too. Let’s explore both (and don’t miss the photos at the bottom!)

POST-GAME UPDATE: Coach Oda (the We > Me coach described below) and his team from Hawaii won the Little League World Series beating South Korea 3-0. Two great examples of his leadership: a) When it became clear they were going to win, he told his boys to savor the moment and “love one another”, and b) When they won, the microphone caught him saying, “Be humble! Be humble!” Read more about him below.

WINNING AT ANY COST

I was channel surfing Wednesday night when I landed on the live broadcast of the Ohio State press conference announcing the findings from the recent investigation into the football coaching staff.  Zach Smith, an assistant football coach at Ohio State, was fired in July after he was issued a protection order forbidding him from being within 500 feet of his wife. The ensuing investigation and report made it clear that Head Coach Urban Meyer has known about “some problems” for years. The events leading up to the crisis revealed a failure of leadership at every level. The punishment includes a slap on the wrist for the Athletic Director and for Urban Meyer. I am going to stop calling him Coach – he doesn’t deserve the title.

As Urban Meyer spoke, I felt a rising sense of disbelief. He couldn’t have looked more irritated or offended that he was put in this undignified position. Never mind that his failure to self-lead himself landed him right where he was. He sped through a written statement like an A student from the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course. His concern was for “the program” and Buck-eye nation, and blah blah blah. Perhaps most egregious, Urban Meyer failed to apologize to the victim for his inaction, even though Urban Meyer’s own wife had told him that there were problems.

Click here to watch Urban Meyer read his short statement.

Winning? Rankings? Recruiting? Money? Power? Is that what drives Urban Meyer? I don’t know. I do know that the sports culture at some schools is rotten and it offers a black cloud of cover that has hidden abuse at Penn State, Michigan State, and Maryland. When leaders choose to look the other way in the face of obvious wrong doing to protect a program, a reputation, or a position of power, the institution is doomed. The stakeholders lose trust in them and they become angry and disengaged.

This problem always begins and ends at the top. LEADERS MUST LEAD. The people that had real power at that press conference were the Athletic Director and Urban Meyer. Despite his title, the President of Ohio State looked like he’d been hit by a bus. Deflated, he had little to say beyond the opening statement. It was very similar to how Lou Anna Simon, former President of Michigan State University, appeared during the Larry Nassar scandal. LEADERS MUST LEAD and sometimes it means doing the hard thing like firing a person in a position of power because of their poor behavior. Universities are notoriously inept at this aspect of leadership and if we want real change in college sports, it must begin there. We must demand better. Memo to University Presidents: People & values matter more than trophies. You’re the boss. Sports coaches and all employees work for you. LEAD.

By the way, two days later Urban Meyer issued an apology to Mrs. Smith. His method of delivering that apology? Twitter.

WE > ME  

This is a “WE” moment.

Yesterday I was channel surfing and came across the last inning of the Little League World Series playoffs. It was Hawaii versus Georgia, and Hawaii was up 3-0. I heard the Hawaiian head coach offer encouragement to the pitcher, and I was hooked. I appreciate coaches that understand how to get the best out of each player.

Then the announcer spoke about the Hawaiian team’s jerseys worn on the run up to the U.S. championship game. On each jersey was a statement defining the team culture. It read: WE > ME.  We is greater than Me. It was a simple mathematical formula declaring what success looks like for this team. Now I was doubly hooked.

See the “WE > ME” statement on the back of the jersey?

Hawaii got the last out, and a short celebration followed. Both teams shook hands, the coaches congratulated one another, the crowd chanted “USA!”, and then something unexpected happened.

The Hawaiian team headed over to the stands. I assumed they were going to thank their fans. Instead, they were in front of the families from Georgia. They thanked those fans first, and then headed over to celebrate with their own families. When is the last time you saw that happen at one of your kid’s Little League games? Maybe Hawaii’s “We > Me” statement includes the other team?

Coach Gerald Oda choked up when speaking about competing in Pennsylvania while Hawaii was facing a hurricane, and one of his players reached out to console him. It spoke volumes about what matters most to this team. People matter most. Winning is a byproduct of people mattering most. Click here to see this endearing one-minute video.

I ask you: Who would you want your son or daughter playing for? Who is the better leader, Coach Oda or Urban Meyer?

It all depends on what success looks like. What do you want your children to value? What serves them best in the long run and in the real world?

How can we co-create the kind of sports experience for our kids that inspires them to learn, grow, have the courage and confidence to stand up for what’s right, and embrace the journey of competing rather than the outcome on the scoreboard? What can you do to support and encourage a player or a parent at the next game you attend? Can you celebrate and value effort and sportsmanship with as much energy as a Big 10 title?

There is reason to hope, and much of this is in our own control. People first. We is greater than Me. Let’s give all our energy to those coaches, teams, and players that play the right way and for the right reasons. It doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. They will, and we shouldn’t look the other way when they do. Instead, we must help them understand the ramification of their choices and discuss what might have been done differently. We can grow more Coach Oda’s and fewer Urban Meyers.

Today at 3:00 pm ET, Hawaii plays South Korea for the Little League World Championship. I don’t know who will win and I don’t care. I know that the Hawaiian team is building great young men that will remember the lessons of Little League baseball and use them when they enter the real world. That’s winning in my eyes.

WE Is Greater Than ME – a Destination Unstoppable leadership choice if I’ve ever heard one. Who’s onboard?

Maureen

Leadership Consultant and Author of Destination Unstoppable: The Journey of No Teammate Left Behind

5 thoughts on “The Leader’s Dilemma

  1. Thank you, Maureen, for another thought-provoking, truly inspiring post. I am clear who I’d want my kids playing for!!! Thank you Coach Oda and congratulations to the Little League World Champions: Team Hawaii, Team We > Me! These different scenarios play out in business, too, where the same is true: when we put people first, amazing things become possible.

    • Hi Vicki! Thank you for making the connection between biz & sports. In the end, it is all the same thing – helping leaders/teams reach their full potential. And indeed, putting people first is a common slogan. “People are are most important assets.” The gap between saying and doing is large, and those that say & do often out perform those that say and don’t. I want my kids playing for Coach Oda as well! :-) Thanks for commenting and bringing a fresh perspective. Onward!

  2. Maureen, Insightful comments. You describe two very different experiences. OSU showed winning is all that matters (and I agree that MSU has that same culture, one that isn’t changing with Engler in charge.) The Hawaiian Little League team was the other extreme. I’m not exactly a baseball fan but I happened to catch the end of the game you describe. I kept watching because I saw the We > Me on their shirts, so I wanted to see what happened.
    I wish every child had the kind of leadership that Little League team has. The team won the game, but more importantly, they have won a valuable life lesson. I hope one of them grows up to coach a university team and turn the culture on its head.
    The world needs more leaders like Gerald Oda, in sports, or business or just plain life.

    • Hi Barbara, thanks for commenting! I saw where Urban Meyer met with folks to figure out “how to erase old text messages.” It’s hard to be old and manage technology, especially when it gets you in trouble. I’ve met three university presidents in Michigan, two are the Big Ones, and one is a small college. All three were more intellectual than relational, which is fine and to be expected considering the fact that they are heading an educational institution. It would be helpful if they surrounded themselves with people who were relationship oriented. I have read comments from MSU trustee board members that weren’t exactly helpful. The most vocal critic of the victims of Nassar is a trustee with the last name of Ferguson. Leadership starts and the top and that includes cleaning house. We’ll see if MSU does that. At OSU, one of the board of trustees resigned stating that the punishment for Urban Meyer wasn’t enough, so that was interesting. Overall, I question if the large universities know what success looks like. The small university I worked with definitely does. Even though the leader isn’t Gandhi, he is clear on why they exist and how they measure success. It isn’t associated with the Big 10 Championship, or beating this team or that team. It was about producing great leaders that make an impact. It was very refreshing to be with the students at that school. We do need more leaders like Coach Oda – and by now, everyone has forgotten his name and what he and his team stood for. It helps if people like us keep the conversation alive, and I’m committed to doing that. I’m only one person but in my little world, working with magnificent leaders and coaches and players and employees, I will do what I can do. I can’t change MSU, or OSU, or any other XSU, but I can do what I can do. And I will!

  3. Following up on the idea of cleaning house, I’ve just spent the past 60 minutes trimming a weeping cheery tree that has grown out of control. I realized how similar it is to cleaning house in an organization. What do you cut and where? I also could see what to trim by walking around the tree and getting a new perspective. It’s hard work. I cut. Then cut more. Then I could see more that should be cut, and I could see what I shouldn’t cut. I’m tired, dirty, sweaty. It’s hot and humid. My foot hurts. My knee hurts. My wrist hurts. I have a humongous pile of branches. The tree looks awkward (I am not exactly Edward Scissorhands!) but in the long run, it’s the right thing to do. I took some photos with my cell phone, if they turn out, I’ll post them on facebook. Along with the drama… and in the meantime, I realized there is one more branch that needs to go…. #Maximizer Lots of lessons in nature!

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