Leadership Lessons from the NFL’s Fumble

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Sports fans love stats, right? Well, here’s an amazing stat about me you probably didn’t know: I’ve never sat through an entire professional football game in my whole life. For one thing, I vastly prefer doing to watching. For another, I find men and women moving over surfaces (on bikes or skis for instance) far more compelling than those chasing after oddly shaped balls. That said, I couldn’t escape watching the coverage surrounding the recent Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson abuse scandals – but more through the lens of a consultant and leader who is fascinated with how individual and organizational values affect the response to complex moral challenges than as a sports fan.

Whether you’re a sports fan or not, if you live in America, you know that football is Big Business. Over the last 8 years under the stewardship of Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL has enjoyed a period of almost unprecedented growth. Merchandise sales and revenue from TV contracts is higher than ever, and football continues to rank far ahead of baseball as America’s most popular sport. But what the latest PR disasters have made very clear is – and from what I can tell, there seems to be a new arrest almost every day – the NFL and Goodell should not be taking this growth for granted. The backtracking, apologetic, reactive mindset with which Goodell has been responding indicates levels of hubris and arrogance at work that have substantially damaged the perception of the league in the eyes of their fans – and even non-fans in my case.

Watching Goodell’s recent press conference, it became apparent that the NFL does not have clear or shared values that guide the behavior of its executives or players. As such, I think there’s a powerful lesson here for any successful company to digest, even those who don’t operate on such a public, high-profile level as the NFL. I don’t care how great a product you have – if you’re not delivering it with integrity, eventually you will fail. And that’s where core values come in. As most of my clients are aware, I believe core values are essential for achieving and maintaining significant success. Establishing and adhering to values allows a company to withstand all manner of naturally occurring obstacles. Goodell for instance would do well to try on the following values for size.

1. Humility over hubris

2. Compassion over complacency

3. Accountability from top to bottom

Because of its place in our society and its enormous popularity, the NFL is in a position to take the lead on a number of issues that deserve greater attention: domestic violence, fitness, teamwork, and community service, to name just a few. But with Goodell so busy reacting to events, he doesn’t stand a chance of getting ahead of them. And I’m not talking about getting ahead from a marketing or strategic standpoint; I mean in terms of managing your business properly. Ethically. Meaningfully. While laying a path for a successful future. With core values firmly in place.

If the NFL addresses its current problems with the degree of urgency, clarity and integrity warranted, then it’s possible they could not only salvage their product, but be able to do so in a way that can entertain and inspire its fans at the same time. And that’s something we could all root for.

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