A Lesson from a Leadership Moment Lost

The Boston Globe Sports page today has a good read (as usual), a “where are they now?” story about the players in the Boston College basketball point shaving scandal in the late 1970’s. Buried in the story is a lesson about the importance of leaders being approachable to those they lead.

The famous Tom Davis was the coach of the men’s team at the time.  One of the cheaters was Jim Sweeney, co-captain of the team.  Now, as we spool the lesson, I am mindful that the three main players in the scandal seem as clueless today about the nature of their wrongs as they did as 20-somethings.  Sweeney in particular seems not to understand humility or the nature of forgiveness. He wants once again to be Jimmy Everything the Golden Boy.  And one has to listen skeptically to their every utterance.  Read the piece and you may agree.  With all that, in the body of the story Sweeney says of Davis,

“Sweeney could have spared himself the indignity had he reported the conspiracy at the time. He said he failed to do so for several reasons, including fear (‘Henry Hill wigged me out’’), his friendship with Kuhn, and his poor rapport with Davis, which made him uncomfortable communicating with the coach.

Here I think I credit Sweeney’s account a bit.  It sounds like the leader missed the chance to lead because a key subordinate saw him as unapproachable. Bear in mind as well that two of the three main actors were the co-captains, Sweeney and Ernie Cobb.  Readers know that this is like having the White House Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Treasury involved in a potentially catastrophic plot, under duress from a foreign power, and the President catching nary a whiff of what’s going on.

Amy Cuddy in her research at the Harvard Business School about communication and leadership produced some great lessons on what leaders need to understand about their followers’  brains. We humans judge leaders initially and powerfully with our primitive brains.  Is this person a friend or foe (do I like her and trust her) is she competent to carry out the threat or help she represents (do I respect her)?  In a Q&A in 2012 with the people who write the TED blog, Amy said,

‘You must understand the people you’re trying to influence or lead. You must be able to show them that you understand them – and, better yet, that you can relate to them. By doing that, you’re laying the groundwork for trust. And it’s only then that they can really hear you and be open to your ideas. Trust is the conduit for influence; it’s the medium through which ideas travel. If they don’t trust you, your ideas are just dead in the water. If they trust you, they’re open and they can hear what you’re offering. Having the best idea is worth nothing if people don’t trust you.

Who knows.  Sweeney’s and Cobb’s basic dishonesty may have been too powerful to overcome.

But what if the coach had put his values where his mouth was?  What if he had understood his role a little better? The whole thing might have been prevented.




About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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