Leadership: When arrogance trumps common sense, no one wins

There are memories of life @work that are etched in your brain forever. One of those for me was the morning I received a call from one of my managers. A member of our team had walked into a location late at night, inebriated, and punched a security guard when he was denied access to the building.

This sounds like one of those exercises created by consultants for leadership assessment. What would you do?

It’s not a far fetched scenario and it’s one that many of us will encounter in the course of our career.  Today, in a very public way, the leadership team at the University of Southern California is forced to address a similar situation with their head football coach. And it’s heartbreaking because arrogance trumped common sense.

I do not know Steve Sarkisian, the head football coach at USC. But I do have another memory @work when I was invited to be a guest coach for a day with the USC women’s volleyball team. I joined the team for dinner prior to the match in the athlete’s dining hall. It was past the normal dining hours and the only folks in the room were the volleyball team, coaches and at another table, Steve Sarkisian with Matt Leinart. At the time, Matt was the starting quarterback and Steve was his position coach.

What I observed that evening was a coach committed to his player, taking the time to sit, listen and offer advice and counsel. They were there when we arrived and there when we left. Given the circus atmosphere around NCAA Division I football, this quiet moment formed my perception of Steve Sarkisian.

Many years have passed. The pressure on Division I coaches has increased. Coach Sarkisian accepted a head coaching job at the University of Washington. Matt Leinart was drafted into the NFL. The coach returned to USC and Matt is now a sportscaster for Fox Sports.

Coach Sarkisian’s days @work pass in the glare of media in a town where there are no NFL teams. It’s difficult to imagine the pressure on both players and coaches to perform at a consistent level each week in an environment where losing is never an option and every decision is questioned.

There was an incident in August at a fundraising event. Yesterday, another. And now, former players from UW are sharing memories@work on social media of other incidents. It may be cathartic for them to ‘pile on’ at this point, but where is the humanity that separates a college athlete from a tackle dummy?

You may argue that folks fear retribution, loss of scholarship, lack of playing time and a missed opportunity to play on Sunday. But these are the ‘big guys’ that employers clamor to hire because of their team and leadership skills. Leading from behind carries far less risk than a conspiracy of silence. And can we not forget we are talking about the health of a human being here?

And then there are the adults, the stewards of the workplace community, the folks who are paid for their leadership skills: emotional intelligence, listening, taking action. There are few public details, so innuendo will fill in for facts. But in an environment so preoccupied with rankings, success and winning, we are witnessing an epic leadership fail when it came to empathy toward a key member of the Trojan family.

When you fumble the football, it’s difficult to recover. For the USC leadership team, the clock may have run out. But I hope there is an overtime opportunity for Coach Sarkisian and that he gets well and returns to pursue his dream job.

What did I do? I followed the facts. My team member was going through a divorce and his partner had just denied him visitation with his toddler children. It didn’t justify his behavior. But it did provide a context for a leadership response. The day of the incident he entered rehab, knowing the alternative was losing his job. When he returned to work, he worked every day to stay sober and continued to add value to the organization.

Leading is difficult. But the most valuable assets a leader can possess are a catalog of memories@work and common sense. When it comes to the really tough, human issues @work, there is no proxy for common sense.

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