Fired Football Coaches and Morale at Work…What Do They Have in Common?

Those of you reading this in the US…and some outside…know the stories of Mike Leach and Jim Leavitt, coaches respectively of the Texas Tech University and the University of South Florida college football teams, who were recently fired from their posts.  Leach was officially let go for “insubordination” but the story behind that was that he was alleged to have sent one of his players into a “dark, locked room” for quite some time after said player suffered a concussion.  Now those of you outside this continent might be asking whether locked confinement in a small dark space, allegedly with a “guard” stationed outside, is the normal treatment for concussion in the US…I can assure you that the medical system here is a bit more advanced than that!   More, how can I say….compassionate?  Levitt allegedly grabbed a player by the throat during a game on November 21st, then hit him twice in the face.  He denies doing such a thing, and Leach is suing Texas Tech for slander. As you would expect the sports blogosphere is abuzz with inside information, commentary and the like.  I find the stories compelling not only from a sports perspective, but from what it teaches us about morale in the workplace, and the management which drives that morale, which it does in nearly all cases.

Football is, after all, a workplace. The question then is: how does the coach get the best from his team (in US college football, all coaches are male)?  Now we don’t know the final story as to what Coaches Leach and Leavitt actually did, and I doubt whether the initial reports about them will turn out to be absolutely true; for example, we have already seen video from inside that “dark space” at Texas Tech which made it look decidedly “light”. Whatever turns out to be “true” in these individual cases, its useful to look them in terms of what happens in the general organizational world, because these as-yet-unproven accusations represent an extreme of the kind of abusive treatment of subordinates regularly dished out by a creature we call the “boss from hell”.

Who is the boss from hell?  He or she (unlike US college football coaches, bosses from hell have no gender preference) are flashbacks to an earlier era: in the old days, like the 19th century, people at work were seen almost as beasts needing to be coerced, beaten and threatened into any kind of productive contribution.  Theoretically nowadays management is more enlightened, but is that universally true or do remnants of 19th century management style live on, whether on the football field or in organizations everywhere?  The boss from hell is high on the list of the people that others tell me about as soon as I tell them that I work in the area of morale at work.  I’m not talking about occasionally, I am saying that each and every time I let that information be known, it happens.  They say “ohhhh, you should come to my place!”.  No, not because it is so fabulous, so wonderful…but because there is so much work to be done there to create an environment which is healthy, productive, functional as opposed to dysfunctional, and which has all the performance benefits of high morale. If you are wondering what those are, then please let me direct you to my book because I wont have the space to list them here;  lets just say they are numerous and there is compelling evidence for them.

We therefore have to ask ourselves, how do these dysfunctional bosses, who will end up corroding the morale in an organization, get to occupy positions of power?  One way that happens is that a technically talented person is promoted into the spot where they manage the people whose specialty they share:  the best accountant becomes chief accountant, etc.  No thought is given as to whether this person will be the best “people person” for that group of accountants.  Another way is that an organizational culture which is based on a (unstated and often unconscious) dysfunctional philosophy makes the promotion of such people inevitable.  What I mean is that a culture which is driven by those who are themselves “bosses from hell” will pick those like themselves.  Of course no organization brags in its annual report that “we put people last in our order of priorities and drive them to the wall in the interest of profit”;  but some do it, even while they say the opposite.

One important point to make about the Coach Leach situation is that, as we have seen in the last two weeks, many of the fans are shouting out that Leach was a “winner” and are finding reasons to justify his alleged behavior.  In their minds, winning is therefore grounds for any type of behavior, even what might be abusive. In the organization world, there are exact correlates:  “but John always makes his numbers!!”  My reply to that is, “yes but at what cost?”   Is the cost that John’s work group suffers constant turnover?  Is it that psychological stress occurs, people become ill?  And if that isn’t enough, how do we know that John’s numbers might not have been far superior if he had treated his people as his most important asset?

Texas Tech University is located in Lubbock, Texas.  We don’t even have to leave that state to know that good treatment of football players is not the “soft” way to go, not the “losing strategy” which is feared by some of the fans:  just 400 miles away in Austin, Coach Mack Brown of the University of Texas football team went further in the 2009 college football championships than Texas Tech, and has a far better winning percentage at Texas than Leach has at Texas Tech (0.831 versus 0.661).  Brown is known as a friendly, congenial man who treats his players, staff, the alumni and complete strangers who come up to him in the street, like gold. Maybe organizations everywhere can take note of that fact and its implications; if they did, consultants like me might find less people telling us about their “boss from hell”.

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