Will Nice Guys Finish First?
Lately I have been commenting about leadership in sports, specifically in the NFL as described by the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, who writes extensively on the topic. She recently pointed up the Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh’s management style aimed at winning games, hearts and minds in equal measure: he speaks softly, listens to the superb athletes he coaches and supports the players even when their calculations result in a loss.
Jenkins contrasts this with the leadership style of Urban Meyer, who was fired as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach last month, and whom I remember vividly from his Ohio State days (full disclosure: I went to Michigan State, so I can hardly claim to be unbiased!). Meyer’s top-down approach and his propensity to pass the buck and blame his players for missed plays vividly demonstrated his disrespect for the outstanding group of veteran athletes he was supposed to be leading. It is unsurprising that they played a key role in his departure; he didn’t have their backs, they didn’t have his.
What’s the lesson in all this? It’s more than just “be nice” or “respect the team,” as important as those things are. In trying to tease out the significance of what has been happening in sports in the context of what is happening in the larger culture, I see many strands of the great upheaval we are living through now, in which more and more people on the front lines are refusing to work for jerk bosses.
This shift in mood began before we ever heard the word Covid, though it has been sharpened and exacerbated by it. The MeToo movement in 2018 played a role, with women all over the world deciding they should no longer put up with workplace cultures in which sexual harassment was accepted, and men considered “too valuable” to lose only rarely paid the price.
Another sign of the times was the effort to secure fair payment for college athletes, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision last June that the NCAA had violated antitrust rules by limiting education-related benefits schools can provide students.
These phenomena, combined with the growing and substantial numbers of people who are quitting their jobs or taking their time to look for new ones, represent a major power shift–– an awakening of sorts–– that was laid bare by the pandemic rather than caused by it. As previously noted by Adam Grant of the Wharton School, the Great Reckoning is less a “mad dash from the office than a long march toward freedom.”
Encouragingly, the common denominator seems to be an increasing refusal by people to put up with abusive environments, people and practices–– with being disrespected or undervalued. And this is happening both on the part of what we think of as “ordinary” people–– nurses, teachers, restaurant workers–– and those we consider super elites, such as pro and college athletes, silicon valley engineers, medical doctors, and actors, directors and producers who are female.
Could loutish, abusive behavior from those at the top finally become passé?
In her column about Urban Meyer, Sally Jenkins noted: “From the very beginning, with his demeaning labeling of guys as either ‘Winners’ or ‘Losers’ in training camp and his supercilious pronouncement that ‘Every man’s got a record,’ you could tell Meyer badly misapprehended what it takes to lead in the NFL.”
Let us hope that in the NFL and elsewhere, toxic leaders will increasingly be held to account.