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NFL––Are the players leaders or losers?

Just a thought…

First of all, NFL players showed leadership last weekend. All of them. Some took a knee, some stood, some stayed in the locker room. What is interesting as you listen to the interviews is that without exception, they all recognize that their teammates might have different opinions, they respect the right of their teammates to express themselves either way and they put their differences aside, go out together and do their jobs. Please correct me if I’m wrong––but I’ve heard no stories about any players using abusive language to deride their teammates views. I haven’t seen any reports about fist fights in the locker room or on the practice field over their political or social views. What I have seen is players supporting one another, regardless of their individual views. On the other side of the leadership coin is President Trump… Now this is NOT––I repeat, NOT a political statement or criticism.

Let’s stay focused on the leadership lessons emerging from this issue. No matter how you feel about this year’s rash of protests by NFL players to highlight what many of them feel is a serious racial issue, President Trump ignited the new round of protest with this statement:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

Now any way you slice it, using the words "son of a bitch" to describe anyone is bound to pick a fight. The words you use are important––more on that later.

He went on to say: “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’” Well, not so much. By and large the owners supported the players and several issued statements in unity against the President’s statements. Now there are a few powerful leadership lessons here. The first is this:

“Who you are as a leader, and as a person, becomes reality in the hearts and minds of the people you serve through what you say and how you say it.” ~THE SENSEI LEADER The second is that it is a leaders’s responsibility to try to understand the motivations behind the words and actions of the people you serve. And third, your credibility as a leader is built on consistency. Your words and actions must be consistent. This situation gives us a chance to study all of these lessons… Whether they’re right or wrong, this conflict started because of the perception that then President-Elect Trump is a racist. Many people felt that Mr. Trump was at best fairly obtuse when it came to their sincere concerns over racism and particularly recent incidents with the police. Where did this perception come from? Again, whether you agree or not that President Trump is in fact a racist, his own words and deeds certainly contribute to the perception. As a real estate mogul he was involved in several discrimination suits. As a casino owner he was involved in the removal of black dealers at the request of a high-rolling patron. As candidate and as President his statements on Mexicans and illegal immigrants have been taken as racist and xenophobic by many. Now to be fair, that doesn’t mean he’s a racist. His motivations may have been purely business and the racial appearance incidental. However… A leader must own his or her words and actions. Communication is a two-way process. There is projection and reception. What you project and how sets the stage for how your words and actions will be received and perceived. Now for the understanding the motivations of the people you serve… What is the motivation behind the NFL kneeling protest? To be honest, I’ve heard different explanations. It seems these motivations can be highly personal depending on who you talk to. Overall it’s accurate to say that the players are demonstrating unity with people they feel are the victims of systemic discrimination and a deep frustration with inaction from those in power. Now again, it’s not important to this discussion whether those perceptions are right or wrong, but it vitally important that a leader know the feelings, thoughts and opinions of the people they serve and to make a sincere effort to understand the motivation behind them. This is the key to resolving differences and earning loyalty and respect. There is nothing that will distance a leader from constituents more than the feeling that said leader isn’t informed and doesn’t care. Intentionally or otherwise, President Trump has certainly projected exactly that in his NFL comments. And finally, consistency. One of the most persistent challenges in leadership is managing change. People don’t like change––and they don’t like it when a leader seems to “flip flop” or change sides for the sake of convenience or personal benefit. As the owner of a football franchise, Mr. Trump openly challenged the NFL’s right to a protected monopoly status. His contention was that the government had no business protecting the business of NFL football. Later he again spoke out against government involvement in the football business when he supported the Washington Redskins in their trademark battle. In response to then President Obama’s position on the matter Mr. Trump tweeted: “President should not be telling an NFL team to change their name.”

Now to be fair again, his stated point was that the President had bigger matters to attend to at the time. That does not change how this statement was perceived at the time, and his words have now certainly come back to haunt him as he tweets: “NFL should change policy.”

Now he may have a sincere explanation for his change of heart, but critics are openly charging him with hypocrisy based on his past remarks. It is the responsibility of a leader to justify and clearly explain a change of course. It is your obligation to win people to the new cause in such a way that they will embrace the change willingly, if not enthusiastically. Now I’ll be the first to say that in the greater scheme of things, there probably are much more important and pressing issues other than what’s happening on NFL fields this weekend. However, it is clear that for many people, there are deep and sincere passions at work. The same may happen on your watch. That is, something that appears trivial to you may in fact be an issue of great concern and importance to the people you serve. It is critically important that you’re aware of these issues when they arise. Meanwhile, this debate, and the football season, will rage on. It will be interesting to study what leadership lessons emerge.

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