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The NFL’s Reputation Dilemma and What Great Leaders Will Learn From It

NFL Leadership

The NFL is in a Battle Royale of Epic Proportions Against Itself — It’s Own Credibility Vs. It’s Own Reputation

How is the NFL missing the mark so badly?

Kneeling for the flag, domestic violence, inconsistent leadership — all issues embroiling the NFL in deep controversy. And undoubtedly, you have your personal opinion on the current state of the National Football League. The NFL has seen ratings decline year over year, sponsors blame them for earnings dips(then weirdly apologizing), and severely straining relationships with its core audience. Some of the national anthem protesters even took their knees before a game in London, on foreign soil. The players followed that by standing for “God Save The Queen.”

The NFL has begun to see organized protests begin to bubble up with all of this, most recently during Veteran’s Day Weekend — and even if you’re completely apathetic about the whole thing, you’re still curious why it matters so much.

Let’s start from the top…

during the first half at Nissan Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Relationship Problem

Any living organization creates a dual relationship with the public to whom it serves: they incur the obligation to serve and the obligation not to harm. As a football fan, I require the services of the NFL and I demand certain needs be met. Good for the NFL, right? Because the more I demand of them, the more power I invest in them and the more successful they can become.

Now, that success comes with two consequences: the more powerful any organization becomes, the more vested interest they have to maintaining that power, and the greater is the potential power to hurt me because I rely on their services. This leads me to a baseline psychological truth: you and me delegate our time to those we permit to lead and influence our lives’. The NFL, due to its power, assumes a leadership role in people’s lives across the world whether they care to or not.

But as I said, the NFL has a relationship problem. The fan of the NFL, the player in the NFL, and the actual league have become divided on cultural tensions involving race, equality, and the national anthem/flag. The values that were thought to be shared between parties (fan, player, and league) are now seen as a psychological farce.

The NFL is being suffocated by a lack of trust that is violating the relationship it worked hard to build with fans and players, alike.

A Lack of Shared Values

So here’s the problem: the fan (me) is finding the perceived lack of shared values so unappealing that I no longer place time and trust into the NFL. As a consequence, I am losing emotional satisfaction from the product. And I do not feel the same pride of a shared bond that I once did.

And believe me, I love nothing more than watching finely tuned athletes, who have worked their collective assess off to prepare for each and every gladiatorial moment on Sunday, test their physical, mental, and emotional limits in a display of team strategy and individual willpower. Like you, I love Sundays in the fall.

But it has become increasingly difficult to enjoy as I see players kneeling for a flag that some of my friends have died for. As a member of the armed forces, I respect the constitutional right to free speech and am fully convinced players are not trying to offend military vets, civil servants, and law enforcement. However the fact is, they have.

Former Army Ranger now global leadership consultant JC Glick, “The NFL, like the military, is an organization where Americans of all creeds and colors come together in battle for shared victory. As teammates, you know what it looks like to work, sweat, and bleed beside your brothers of all races; our military service-members and veterans live this same reality every day.”

It’s not tough to imagine that the NFL and their collective fan base share similar values based on the same type of resilience and team work it takes to accomplish their respective missions.

So how can a realignment of values take place? 

It’s a simple, but not an easy solution: Leadership must lead again.

NFL Leadership

Credibility is the foundation of power and leadership. Reputation is an uncontrollable force derived from personal perception.

Allow me to set the table on what exactly I think is the major shortcoming here.

Bestselling author of The Leadership Challenge, award-winning speaker, and executive educator Jim Kouzes states, “Credibility is the foundation of leadership. This is the inescapable conclusion we’ve come to after thirty years of asking people around the world what they look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow…the four things everyone looks for is a leader is honesty, competence, the ability to inspire a shared vision, and forward thinking.”

It’s one thing to follow someone because you think you have to “or else,” and it’s another when you follow someone or something because you want to. It turns out that the believability of the leader determines whether people will willingly give more of their time, support, and energy.

If you can’t believe the messenger, you won’t believe the message. People don’t distinguish the message from the messenger, at least not often.

On the other hand, reputation (what the league appears to care more about) is defined as the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something. It’s the external piece to this whole thing — and it’s not what the NFL needs to invest in.

The NFL doesn’t need to address it’s reputation. It needs to address itself. Despite the fame and wealth of players and owners, the NFL has not taken an active leadership role to address the cultural tensions it has the power to ease.

Let’s take a look at two fundamental relationships — by the way, this is where great leaders take note of the question that is posed to both sets.

The League and the Players

Is our action/inaction helping us achieve our mission on and off the field?

Inside the walls of each team, a vital and reciprocal relationship connects the player and the organization. Without equal and opposite respect, trust is compromised. Authoritarian methods of the NFL’s leadership no longer work consistently because they don’t consider unconscious motivations of individual players – intrinsic drives, struggles with identity, attitudes towards power.

The need for player autonomy is real – the extent to which a player is eager to express individual initiative and feel connected to his occupation. People in all jobs (not just NFL players) bring their attitudes, expectations, and modes of behavior to work – all of these are derived from life experiences. People (again, not just NFL players) suffer when asked to behave in ways that violate their personal values and rules of behavior. Their first reaction is guilt; then they become angry with themselves and their organization.

To change behavior, leaders must lead with empathy.

But we don’t have to violate anyone’s values or rules of behavior during this process! Remember: It’s the job of those leading the players to bring attention, learning, and practice to the space between stimuli and response. It’s the psychological space between how certain things in life are perceived (action which incites physiological or psychological activity) by a person and how the person responds to it in his behavior which may either be positive or negative.

The league must want to turn the players into real problem solvers. They must instill the attitude that “we are the problem and we are the solution.”

The Players and the Fan

What vision are the players inspiring? And why should we follow?

Naturally, humans gravitate to people in power: money, influence, and status all signal power in our culture. When the power being wielded is not in concert with the values of those looking to follow, trust is destroyed.


Back to Former Army Ranger JC Glick speaking to protesting NFL players — “It was understood by many that your goal was to protest racial inequality. Unfortunately, you’ve provided the public with little information other than that you are protesting and you want change. The problem is that when you are trying to lead by sitting or taking a knee, you aren’t leading in an active way…At best, you are making a passive demonstration, which gains our attention, but which alone can rarely bring about the change we are seeking.”

One of the keys to a good message is to have a clear goal. If the discussions this seasons have been any indication, nobody is entirely clear what is being protested when athletes kneel during the national anthem — racial inequality, police brutality, Trump?

Players, today, have the ability to reach far more people with their platform than ever before. But real leaders are built to lead the collective, be effective social engineers, and maintain strong, regenerative values. None of this is accomplished by kneeling for our national anthem.

The question of leadership each player must ask himself: Is our action/inaction helping us achieve our mission on and off the field?

The Promised Land

The NFL nedds to answer “What business are we in? – or – “What is the broadest social function of our institution? How can it meet its basic economic purpose, yet adapt itself flexibly to social evolution?”

This is not about the image of the NFL. It’s about the moral fiber of the NFL.

Once leadership returns, the trust relationships inside the walls of the NFL will increase and problems will dissipate. The reputation will have become fixed while viewership and trust from the fan returns. The emotional attachment from consumer to player is put back into the experience. In essence, the “connected feeling” is back in the game and the people watching it.

With proper leadership, deliberate action is taken to share responsibility and power with players while aligning them strongly with league values.

The NFL cannot view itself only as a profit center and expect it to last. Only credible leaders earn commitment, and only commitment builds and regenerates great organizations and communities. The NFL and players have a choice to make about their credibility — Will they decide they are both the problem and the solution? It will be a grand lesson in Leadership.

About the author, Tim

US Navy Surface Warfare Officer.
Lacrosse Player.

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