03 August, 2015

Leadership Lessons from Deflategate

Last week the NFL upheld its four game suspension of Tom Brady for his involvement in deflating balls below the designated limit in January’s AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.

The news has been all over the media as well as questions about the future and legacy of Mr. Brady, the actions of the Patriots and the implications for the season. While there are tons of articles out there about the situation (see list below for a few), I wanted to see what lessons we can take from the situation as to what good leaders do not do.

1. Good Leaders Do Not Look for Someone Else to Blame.

Almost from the moment hints of under-inflated balls hit the airways after the AFC game, Brady and the Patriots have declared their innocence. This did not stop them, however, from blaming anyone outside the organization for their situation.

This is not the first time the Patriots have had cheating allegations levied against them. They have been accused of having inside intel on other teams, to the point of filming practices. They have used illegal plays and formations during games.

And as before, the Patriot are indignant, taunting and putting on one hell of a performance in their quest to be “vindicated” from charges everyone knows are true.

The team has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar. At this point it’s best to stop blaming everyone else, circling the wagons and trying to play the victim and maybe admit to what is right in front of them.

2. Good Leaders Take Responsibility

In what seemed like a series of excuses from day one, Tom Brady has not come close to admitting to, much less apologizing for well, anything.

In one of the more bizarre (and telling) moments, Brady told the NFL investigators that he did not know the, “permissible inflation range set by the NFL Playing Rules” (NFL Nation 5/6/15). It’s like a world-class piano player saying they don’t know what the pedals do or an electrician saying they don’t know how to ground a wire. It’s a basic of the game. A basic all 32 teams have agreed to.

Brady even went so far as to deny knowing staff on the team. Staff who deal with the very equipment he uses daily, staff who have been with the Patriots for decades, staff with whom he corresponded with via test message. It would be laughable if Brady did not think people were dumb enough to buy the lies.

A leader stands up and takes responsibility. Even IF Tom Brady had nothing to do with the balls being deflated, he should have gone to the podium and taken one for the ball handling team. He should have admitted the balls were low and promised they would not be this season. He should have cooperated fully and then accepted the punishment levied against him. Brady and the Patriots could have saved a lot more face if they had appeared to be humbled, corporative or even open in any part of what’s happened because of their decisions. This is not happening to them – they brought this on themselves by cheating.

3. Good Leaders are Transparent

Good leadership would have been coming out the day after the first hint of improper deflating was announced and been honest. It is not grand standing, proclaiming your innocent, blaming everyone else, or playing dumb. It’s not using long words and strong language that attempt to garner sympathy and paint yourself as the victim when evidence and common sense says you are anything but.

To put it simply: good leaders are not indignant, they are not martyrs and they stand up and tell the truth.

In all of this, the other big black eye against Brady is the destruction of his cell phone from the time of the incident on the very day the investigators wanted to talk to him. It was a key piece of evidence Brady knew the investigators wanted.

His excuse? Well he (supposedly) destroys all of his old cell phones. And why does it matter – the league has communications has what they need from the Patriot staffers’ phones?

Through his decisions Brady has made the conversation as much about his (lack of) character as it is about his actions. His unwillingness to just take responsibility for his actions will ultimately hurt his legacy more than the actions themselves ever will.

If Brady had just taken responsibility for his part this could be a footnote but since he insists on playing the victim way beyond the point of believability, this has become a bolded line in how he will be remembered. His legacy is tarnished by his choices.

4. A Leader Does Not Cheat

The most basic leadership lesson we can learn here is: leaders do not cheat.

There are rules, rules established by the league, approved by the owners. Rules that should be common sense to every player and staffer on all 32 teams. These rules lead to fairness and ensuring that all 32 teams have an equal playing field.

Someone who is a leader plays within those rules. They look at the PSI levels and find a level that works for them. They don’t spy on their opponents; they don’t try and pull a fast one on the referees. They don’t play the victim, and when that fails they don’t become bullies.

The Patriots are a well-oiled machine. They are disciplined and everyone does exactly what they are supposed to. There is little denying they are a powerhouse team. But when faced with something as severe (and proven) as cheating, the last thing a leader does is look to somewhere else to place the blame. But that is what the organization and those closest to Brady are doing.

Until now they have not had to pay in any way that hurts them. The fines levied against them are laughable when you consider how much they make, losing draft picks doesn’t hurt because, well, they are at the bottom of the list anyway because of how good they are. Instead of letting them buy themselves out of another cheating fine, the NFL hit them where it hurt: by benching a key player.

Where We Are Now

Ultimately, the Patriots and Brady are in a place of leadership because they are in the public arena. Children look up to Brady and emulate what he does. But they are not leaders. They have shown their entitlement comes from a place of privilege and power. They expect that by being at the top they have the freedom to do what they want. And if they get caught – there is always money.

Brady’s reputation and legacy have been altered by the situation and mostly by his reaction to it. While some might have suspected that the leadership of the Patriots is content to play outside the lines, I think many hoped Brady would not display such arrogance. The unfolding of Deflategate since January has shown only the worse side of many. And maybe the discussion we should be having is why the NFL (also in a position of leadership) is doing so little to address the core issue here.

If you can only win by working outside the rules, does that really make you a winner? 

If you are powerful only because you are a bully, does that really make you powerful? 

If you want to escape responsibility because of your status, what does that really say about your character and who you are?


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© Amanda Lunday