Thursday of last week was the USA’s Thanksgiving holiday. The day typically includes family, food, and pro football, all three in great quantities.

A play during one game revealed the responsibility that leaders have to hold their staff accountable for desired behavior, at all times.

You may search YouTube for video clips of the play. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh slams the Green Bay Packers player’s head to the turf – twice – then stomps on his opponent’s arm in anger. The referees penalized the Lions for Suh’s unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected Suh from the game.

The NFL has not yet announced whether Suh’s behavior will earn him a fine or suspension (I think both are required in this case). What prompts this post was a comment that ex-coach Bill Cowher made about the incident. Cowher said, “The coach either condemns or condones a player’s behavior. It’s up to the coach to quash behavior he doesn’t want on the field and encourage behavior he does want on the field.”

 Leaders Drive What Behavior is OK in the Workplace

We see this happen all too often in organizations. Leaders typically focus entirely on performance and results. They do not naturally emphasize HOW results will be accomplished, which requires defining what values and behaviors “good corporate citizens” must demonstrate in the workplace.

The result of this “performance-only” emphasis? Blanchard’s research and experience indicates that:

  • Performance occurs most consistently when the boss is watching. Performance is inconsistent when the boss is not present.
  • People treat internal and external customers as “less-than-equal” more often than not.
  • Power struggles occur, driven by managers and staff, which creates a workplace of fear and intimidation.
  • The application of discretionary energy by employees towards goal accomplishmen is rare; too often it is absent.

Great Leaders Are BOLD about Performance and Values Expectations

Leaving values to chance means leaders see a wide range of behaviors in their workplace. If a leader want a high performing, values-aligned team, that leader must create the foundation with clear goals AND clear valued beahviors.

All sports teams start with the same ultimate goal – winning the championship. What separates good teams from great teams is not exclusively the clarity of the goal and each team member’s commitment to that goal – it is goal clarity and team commitment to great team practices that enables consistent team performance and values alignment.

Here is a terrific example of a pro team’s ground rules. The Stalulfur Football Team in Iceland’s Division 3 league outlines sixteen specific “citizenship” practices. Imagine if Suh was a player on a team with these valued behaviors so clearly defined. Ground rules such as “play with discipline and enthusiasm,” “put the team first,” and “show respect for opponents, officials, and fans” might drive different behaviors from Suh on the field.

Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is at a crossroads. Will he continue to condone Suh’s behavior or will he condemn it, demanding exceptional sportsmanship from all players on the field and off? Only time will tell.

What is your experience with “unsportsmanlike conduct” in the workplace? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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  1. AvatarSimon Harvey says

    A great post and obviously one (since NFL Properties LLC swiped the video from youtube) that the NFL would rather not have displayed across the world. Money wins out again.

    Love the The Stalulfur Football Team rules you posted, very apt, perhaps the NFL could adopt them. It was interesting as I have not watched an American football game in years (then this Thanksgiving watched several at my in-laws), how little things have changed in the NFL in regards to leadership and team over the years. There is still a slew of good leaders out there and then a the poor ones on the other side. As you rightly point out, poor leadership eventually leads to poor sportsmanship, and while condoning behavior like this is surely against good sportsmanship, behavior such as this seems to be part of the NFL, it gets people talking and watching the games on TV (income for the NFL).

    As the NFL has the video taken down, I can not comment much as to Mr Suh or his behavior as I did not see the infraction, but I feel that one point that this brings out, is some light on another part of the system. Assuming that in general, this type of behavior is not condoned by the NFL or any team on the NFL, why does it still go on ? Perhaps a good lesson to leaders and leadership in general is that if you forget that all systems rely on feedback and we are all part of many systems, this is the requirement of any good leader, to make sure that they not only give feedback but also receive it.

    Sadly, unsportsmanlike conduct is what some sports coaches coach, it is sad and somewhat unbelievable when one finds it, but it is there. Sportsmanlike conduct should be no different than good conduct in life. We should all be helping each other, willing to lead when needed and follow when asked. My views on unsportsmanlike conduct is that it stems from far more than poor team leadership, it goes much deeper than this. It comes from “self” and the lack of feedback one gives to the self.

    Self awareness is crucial to our conduct, it is our feedback, it is what says, ok that was a good hit or, damm why did I do that, and what can I learn from that. When your job is to hit people (on the fields of the NFL) then your are being asked to walk a thin line of emotion. You are being asked to tap into the power of emotion but to conduct it correctly. It is easy to watch TV and say that this was poor conduct, or poor leadership or both. But perhaps it is also a case of poor conduction of emotion from within. This type of behavior is all over the game of American Football, from Highschool to the NFL.

    Take the individuals out of the game and you have not got rid of the behavior or the individula, that was there before the game. This is about the basics of learning and growing, using a growth mindset, understanding leadership from the very beginnings of our lives, parents, schools and peers and understanding and being taught self-awareness.

    You can demand exceptional sportsmanship all you want and set goals of exceptional sportsmanship, but until you set roles and procedures and get feedback (take the time to understand the people that you work with), the cycle will continue.

    As you will see here: Mr Suh has had time to think about his conduct, and one hopes this was from his own mindset and not just that of the teams. This is self-awareness, understanding who you are, learning how to control and conduct your emotion, building conductivity where needed and working on strengthening the places where more control is needed and learning from mistakes and failure. This was not just Mr Suh’s mistake and failure, it was the whole teams. But the beauty in that, is that it can be the whole team that can learn and grow from it. Jim Schwartz can use this as a catalyst for growth or try to duct take it up and move on, but the latter will be at the team’s expense.

    Mistakes and failure can build us up, or break you down, your self-awareness, your mindset and leadership will make the difference between growth in the right direction or wrong.

    Thanks for the inspiration today.

    • Chris EdmondsChris Edmonds says

      Thanks for your insightful comments, Simon! You’re exactly right – the NFL has values standards; that’s why Suh was ejected for his behavior. The referees hold all on the field accountable to those standards, and a vast majority of players seem to play hard AND accommodate those “citizenship” standards.

      Great leaders do what you describe – they set roles and procedures and get feedback to ensure desired performance and values are demonstrated!