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3 Essential Leadership Lessons to Learn From the Scandals Rocking College Football

These college football coaches remain on leave, but don’t let that stop you from learning these critical leadership lessons.

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BY John Eades - 22 Aug 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

College football season is almost upon us, but I'm finding it increasingly difficult to be enthusiastic this year. Scandal is plaguing the game and overshadowing the excitement fans have for the sport.

Preseason "kicked off" with Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer being placed on administrative leave for his handling of domestic abuse allegations. Then, we were hit with news from my alma mater, the University of Maryland.

Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman, died two weeks after he struggled to recover during and after a team workout. While the school investigates the cause of McNair's death (they have publicly said the training staff made errors and they accept moral and legal responsibility), head coach DJ Durkin was put on administrative leave after an ESPN covered article alleged the program had a "toxic culture."

As a former scholarship athlete at the University of Maryland and someone who has the opportunity to work with leaders in organizations of varying sizes, I just can't sit on the sidelines any longer.

These incidences provide invaluable lessons for all leaders to learn. These, to me, are the three most important:

1. Crucible moments come to all.

While I don't know Meyer personally, I have read his book Above the Line. The combination of his book and his success both on and off the field lends him credibility as someone who takes his leadership position seriously.

However, no leader, regardless of their experience, is immune to moments of temptation. For Meyer, this came in the form of lying about previous knowledge of a domestic abuse dispute between a former coach and his now ex-wife in 2015. Ohio State's board of trustees recently completed a thorough investigation of the entire situation and is set to make a decision about Meyer in the coming days.

If this can happen to someone like Meyer, it can definitely happen to you. Make sure there are standards, core values, and personal character in place to handle these crucible moments, because they are going to happen if you stay in a leadership position long enough.

Then, make sure you have people around you to speak truth into your life and run difficult decisions past to help be your counsel. This can be a mentor, spouse, or high-character friends.

2. Use high levels of love and discipline.

When hired by Maryland in 2015, Durkin and his staff were faced with rebuilding a team that had become accustomed to losing. To help turn around the program, Durkin and his staff's leadership approach was described by a former player in ESPN as "really more tough than it is love."

All leaders struggle with how much discipline and love they should leverage with their people. In this extreme instance, Durkin's imbalance of the two may have led to a 19-year-old player passing away.

In my company's research of over 25,000 leaders, I found the best leaders don't use love or discipline, but rather both--and they employ both at high levels.

Let's define love as "contributing to someone's long-term success and well being." In this sense, it's not something you feel--it's something you do to show someone you're invested in their long-term success and well-being.

We can define discipline, then, as "promoting standards in order for an individual to choose to be at their best." In other words, you can't make choices for your people. They have to make conscious efforts to be the best versions of themselves. It's your job to set high standards and hold them accountable to meet or exceed them.

3. Culture is more powerful than you think.

The culture of a team or organization is being shaped every single day. You must be aware of and intentional with you actions in order to constantly improve your culture.

Many organizations have trouble clearly identifying the makeup of their culture. When there's a miss in understanding, this greatly impacts, and potentially drags down, an organization's culture. In my company's research of over 300 company cultures, five distinct levels of culture emerged:

  1. Toxic

  2. Deficient

  3. Common

  4. Advanced

  5. Elite

Top-performers from Chick-fil-A to Southwest Airlines prove how exceptional performance and elite culture go hand in hand. Having established, stuck to, and consistently developed their shared beliefs and values, these company's cultures are thriving. Making it a point to really understand and articulate the basis of your organization's culture will take you to the top.

In moments like these, you're given the very seldom opportunity to step back and decide where your own weaknesses lie. It's up to you to make the effort to change and develop before you lead yourself, your business, and your employees down a difficult path. Do what's right, use high levels of love and discipline, and positively shape your organization's culture.

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