The following is a guest piece by Dennis Bakke.
As a parent and as a former coach of my son’s youth sports teams, I was filled with shock, horror, and disgust as I learned about the conduct of former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice this past April. Video obtained by ESPN showed numerous clips of Rice leading his practice sessions with such over-the-top behavior that he was fired within days of this footage being made public.
The footage is hard to watch: Rice is perpetually in a temper tantrum, constantly hurling basketballs and epithets at his players, erupting in volcanic shouting at the smallest of mistakes.
What’s most disheartening is the reaction from the players – or, rather, their lack of reaction. As the players get smacked by flung basketballs and hurled insults, they trudge on to the next station with heads down, trying their best to ignore the flying spittle from Rice’s latest tirade.
It’s clear that they’re used to the drill. They know that it’s much better to avoid trouble by trying to slide through practice unseen instead of engaging in any communication with their fiery coach – even if just to say, “Hey, don’t throw that basketball at my teammate’s head.”
Mike Rice had all the power in the Rutgers men’s basketball team. He had complete control over every decision, from who would play on his team to exactly how those players would run each play.
Mike Rice had all the power. But he was not a leader.
The systems guru Edward Deming once said that a leader’s job is to drive fear out of the organization so that employees will feel comfortable making decisions on their own.
While most leaders don’t instill fear in their people like Mike Rice, most leaders of large companies do not make driving out fear a high priority. In “The Decision Maker“, I advocate that leaders should restrain their long-assumed power to empower others to make meaningful decisions. Leaders serve an organization rather than control it.
As you can probably imagine, the most skeptical responses I receive are usually from the bosses and managers themselves. “Aren’t you just asking me to give up all my power?” they ask me. “Won’t this make me look like I’m not doing my job?”
The answer to the second question is a definite “no”. The exercise of power validates big titles and high salaries. When executives give power away, they often feel insecure, as if they are not doing their jobs.
In fact, they are meeting the highest requirements of their jobs when they delegate decisions to subordinates. Not only are decisions being made by the people who are most familiar with the facts, but the act of making them gives more people a real stake in the organization’s performance.
Now, back to that first question. By using the decision-maker process, am I asking managers to give up their power? The answer is yes. I am asking you to give up power so you can gain in your abilities as a leader. But be aware: being in power and being a leader are not the same thing.
It doesn’t take a basketball expert or MBA graduate to see that Mike Rice’s monopoly on power crippled his team’s ability to work well together and succeed in their projects – in this case, winning basketball games.
The players who played for Rice – talented, creative, resilient enough to play at the elite Division One level – were each robbed of their abilities to improvise and problem-solve as individuals and as a cohesive unit.
Under their merciless boss, the Rutgers players could only focus their abilities on trying not to make mistakes, the passion and imagination required to play winning basketball already long drained out of their systems. It’s hardly a surprise that Rutgers had a losing record in each of the three years Rice was head coach.
Giving Rice or his replacement as head coach more power would hardly be a solution to the current dysfunction at Rutgers. But one can immediately envision the positive results if a Rutgers coach gave up some of the power that Rice clutched so tightly.
By empowering their players to make decisions, a coach would be opening up lines of communication, allowing the innate creativity of their players to shine through, and allowing bold and imaginative risk-tasking from players who are no longer exclusively motivated by anxiety. A coach that empowered their players in these ways would create practices that could actually be fun, unlike Rice’s dreary and deflating sessions.
If a basketball team were ran this way, by empowering the players to explore the limits of their prodigious talents, the coach would no longer be a red-faced tyrant to be avoided at all costs. That unhealthy fear is now replaced with a mutual respect: the player is respected for the singular talents they bring to the team, and the coach is respected as a leader.
You may not be leading a sports team, but I’m sure you can see the similarities between the coach/player and manager/employee relationships.
Hoarding the ability to make decisions, like Mike Rice, can get you all the power in the world. But with those gobs of power comes uninspired, punch-in-punch-out employees who will quickly learn to shut down their imaginations and talents for risk of being noticed and singled out.
Sharing the power to make decisions takes true strength, from a true leader, and – most importantly – allows everybody in the organization to truly flourish in their role.
So, yes, implementing the decision-maker process might mean you’ll have to give up some power. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Dennis Bakke is the CEO of ImagineSchools, the largest commercial manager of charter schools in the US. He is also the author of “The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time”.