The Significance of Moral Leadership: What Business Can Learn from the NFL

Mark Cuban, that irrepressible Shark Tank celebrity and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, expresses himself in the most colorful way. Over a year ago he portrayed the NFL as “pigs getting fat and hogs getting slaughtered.” Of course, what he meant is that an organization that’s highly successful—and you have to include the NFL in this category—can fool itself into thinking it’s invincible.

And that’s when the trouble starts. Hubris breeds arrogance and arrogant organizations make critical mistakes. Need I mention the mishandling of the domestic violence cases involving NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, as well as the New England Patriot’s Deflategate scandal. That’s the kind of unprofessional behavior Cuban was referring to.

Deflategate is a perfect example. Tom Brady, the team, and the equipment manager played the game of deny, deny, deny–until the NFL imposed $1 million fine against the Patriots and suspended Brady for four games.

You can make a convincing argument that adherence to moral leadership principles might have avoided these problems altogether. The message sent by the NFL during this troubling time is that correction of bad conduct is secondary to performance on the playing field. Of even greater significance, can you imagine the negative effect on our country’s young people who look to sports figures as role models? What kind of message does it send to these young, impressionable minds?

The Critical Importance of Leadership Role Models

What can you do in your leadership role that will prevent similar catastrophes in your organization? Know that leaders and cheerleaders share a common goal: to inspire teams to do well, without getting in their way. Successful leaders devote themselves to a bold ideal and channel their teams to fulfilling it. They find a way to take the high road, regardless of obstacles: That’s a pretty good description of moral leadership.

Inspiration requires you to be a great role model. Members of your team will recall how you led them in previous tasks, and they will often adopt your style. If, however, you have previously failed to command team members’ respect, your team may take a more Wild West approach, thereby inviting chaos. (This may be what’s happened in the NFL.)

Being the executive optimist means you have to view challenges or problems as opportunities for growth and improvement. Don‘t allow a bad apple to spoil your team‘s motivation. You have the obligation to stop unconscionable behavior in your team wherever you find it, regardless of how good the team member performs who broke the law or broke the rules. A firmly entrenched despoiler can drag down everyone‘s spirits, so meet with this team member for an attitude adjustment. If negative behavior continues, you may want to remove this person for the good of the team. Remind each team member that the organization‘s mission takes precedence over personal agendas and that proper behavior trumps all.

In the daily news, we read countless stories of rampant political corruption, financial mismanagement, government bailouts, pandemic layoffs, investment fraud, and unadulterated corporate greed. As leaders, we must avoid potential pitfalls, making a concerted effort to keep people motivated and productive, while building teams. This can be difficult at times, as demonstrated by the NFL’s current spate of problems.

To maintain a healthy, disciplined work force, flaunt your honesty. Workers want their leaders to be role models whose allegiances and priorities are beyond reproach. Team leaders must have a strong character and integrity, walking the walk and talking the talk. The moment they bend the truth or play favorites, they lose their credibility, and they’ll never get it back.

Correct negative habits and behaviors.

Poor leaders create a climate of negativity, coupled with little or no praise and recognition, and a wink toward wrongdoers. Playing favorites, not keeping your word, avoiding the high road, taking credit for others’ successes, and blaming somebody else to cover up your mistakes are behaviors that result in high turnover and a lack of engagement by those who remain.

By accepting criminal behavior or allowing privileged members to ignore the rules, poor leaders lose the respect of employees and stakeholders. Their inability or refusal to develop a culture of trust deprives people of opportunities to grow. If this behavior goes unchecked, there may be a point of no return that destroys a once-productive company. Poor leadership is often correctable, but only when swift corrective action is taken.

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