Work Matters reader and fellow blogger, Chris Yeh, sent me a link to a Sport's Illustrated story about the discouraging downfall of the UCLA basketball program. And I don't mean the drop off in performance at UCLA in the past few years, I mean the loss of its soul and the rise of a culture of contempt -- with rampant lousy leadership, bad role models, asshole poisoning. Chris summed it all up well:
It’s terrible. Thank goodness John Wooden isn’t alive, or this would have killed him. To trample on his legacy like this is atrocious.
UCLA's John Wooden, the "Wizard of Westwood" not only won more national championships than any coach of a male college basketball team, he fostered a culture of mutual respect and individual development that turned his players -- whether they were superstars like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton or bench-warmers -- into more confident, cooperative, and compassionate human beings.
It appears coach Ben Howland has had the opposite effect. As you can see in this excerpt from the Good Boss, Bad Boss paperback over at Fast Company on the power of subtraction, there is plenty of evidence that when leaders and peers display bad behavior and don't act swiftly and firmly to stop, the vile actions and attitudes spread like wildfire -- and the result isn't just bad performance, it is a culture of contempt that damages everyone involved.
Here is the upshot of the SI story about what happened the last few years under coach Ben Howland:
"Over the last two months SI spoke with more than a dozen players and staff members from the past four Bruins teams. They portrayed the program as having drifted from the UCLA way as Howland allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale. Fistfights broke out among teammates. Several players routinely used alcohol and drugs, sometimes before practice. One player intentionally injured teammates but received no punishment."
The story offers many twists and turns, it is long and well-researched. It provides many old but true lessons about how a bad boss can ruin a good team. If you are a leader of a group or organization of any size, it is worth studying and then taking a long hard look in the mirror and asking yourself -- am I doing that too? Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:
1. Are you focusing on strategy, but ignoring your team?
Strategy matters, but it is not enough. According to the story this was Howland's general management style. He acted as if the human part of his job was a nuisance. As the article explains:
Other than during practices and games, he had little contact with his athletes, according to players. He showed up moments before a workout began and was gone before players paired off to shoot free throws at the end. Several team members say that his approach was how they imagined an NBA coach would run a team.
2. What behavior do you model?
The SI story reports numerous examples of abusive and disrespectful behavior on his part:
Each of the players who spoke to SI said they found Howland socially awkward and disapproved of the verbal abuse they say he directed at his staff, the student managers and the weakest players. One player said if he saw Howland waiting for the elevator he would take the stairs.
Walk-on Tyler Trapani was another Nelson victim. After Trapani took a charge that negated a Nelson dunk, Nelson went out of his way to step on Trapani's chest as he lay on the ground. Trapani is John Wooden's great-grandson.
There are many other examples, but this one is symbolic as Nelson was literally trampling on a body that contained some of Wooden's DNA. Here is how Howland was reported to have responded to such bad behavior:
After each of the incidents, Howland looked the other way. One team member says he asked Howland after a practice why he wasn't punishing Nelson, to which he said Howland responded, "He's producing."
5. Are you succeeding because the peer culture among your followers is hiding or offsetting your deep flaws?
This is one of the interesting parts of the story, and something every leader should think about. In many cases, teams and organizations succeed DESPITE rather than BECAUSE of their leaders flaws. In Howland's early years at UCLA, when the team was winning and morale among the players was good despite Howland's quirks and flaws, it was apparently due in large part to the tight bonds among the team members, an unusually mature and low ego group (which began unraveling in about 2008):
It was a team of prefects, the protectors of the UCLA dynamic, who looked out for each other, making sure that no one got into trouble, that no one threatened what they were trying to accomplish or what UCLA has always been about. They were a tight group. If they went out, to the movies or a party, they were 15 strong. That kind of camaraderie is not unusual on good teams, but Howland's former players say he had very little to do with instilling it.
6. Is your boss letting YOU get away with toxic and incompetent leadership?
I was pretty stunned to read this:
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who through a spokesperson declined SI's interview request, told ESPN.com in January, "I need Ben Howland. Why would I even think about looking at someone else?" He added, "By his own admission, [Howland] made some mistakes. But I'm going to work with him. I'm not going to crucify him for those mistakes. Because Ben Howland is a hell of a coach, and anyone who understands basketball, anyone that's been around him, that knows the game, has the utmost respect for what he does as a coach. ... We need to turn it around, and we all get that. But we will."