Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Real Culture War: Respect vs. Cynicism

In their insightful book on iconic UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned,” co-authors Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore make one point abundantly clear: John Wooden was a teacher first, a coach second. Yes, he coached his players to win at the game of basketball, starting each season with a lesson on the correct way to tie their sneakers, and ending with 10 NCAA championships. But more importantly, he taught his players respect. He taught them to respect themselves as athletes, each other as teammates, and most of all, the history and tradition of the game of basketball.

Which brings us to the recent horror-show of coaches in American sports.

Let’s start with John Calipari, head coach of this year’s NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats, and, incidentally, the only coach in NCAA history to have two Final Four appearances vacated. As far as character is concerned, one Associated Press columnist started his coverage of Calipari and the title game by writing, “The words ‘trust’ and ‘John Calipari’ rarely turn up in the same sentence for a very good reason.” When you’re about to play for the national championship, this isn’t the kind of coverage you usually see—unless your record of conduct is so egregious, even the sports press can’t hold its collective nose any longer.

Or take Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino, whose Razorbacks are expected to start next season with a Top 10 ranking. Recently Petrino went for a ride on his motorcycle, wrecked it, and then lied about the accident, saying he was alone on the bike. In fact, he had a female passenger, a young former Arkansas volleyball player, with whom he was carrying on an extra-marital affair. A high school coach from Louisville who’s known Petrino for years described him this way: “As a coach, he’s a genius, he’s one of the elite minds. Personally, well, he’s a good coach.”

And then there’s Gregg Williams. If you want, you can go on the Web and hear what real live coaching sounds like. There’s a tape of Williams, as the defensive co-ordinator of the New Orleans Saints, telling his players before a playoff game with the San Francisco 49ers, “Do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head.” Or “Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect (Quarterback Alex Smith’s) head. Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head.”

But this isn’t just about coaches. Or sports.

This is about America’s real culture war. It’s about the difference between a culture of respect and a culture of win-at-all-costs. And it applies as much to journalism, politics, and business as it does to sports.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate a coach who lies or cheats, as long as he wins—and doesn’t get caught.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate a news channel with journalists who distort the news as long as they get good ratings—and don’t say anything so outrageous that it loses sponsors.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate political candidates who flip and flop and make unfounded charges against their opponents, as long as they win elections—and don’t get unmasked as unrepentant hypocrites.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate companies that take advantage of their customers, lie about their products, and create a toxic environment for their employees as long as earnings and stock prices go up—and they don’t get exposed by a former employee in a tell-all column.

A coach who lies and cheats has no respect for the game that gives him his living, for the institution that employs him, or for players and fans; he simply believes that if he wins, all else will be forgiven. The same is true of a journalist who prefers a hot story to a true one. It’s true for politicians or business executives who do whatever they think it will take to win. They have no respect for their profession, their colleagues, or the public.

The opposite of respect, it turns out, isn’t disrespect.

The opposite of respect is cynicism.

The notion is that you can fool some of the people some of the time, and those you can’t fool, you can seduce by winning.

The 2012 NCAA basketball tournament is history; the NCAA football season hasn’t started; the NFL hasn’t resumed practicing yet. And to be fair, Petrino got fired from Arkansas--score one for respect. Williams has been suspended by the NFL--score another for respect. And Calipari is losing a big chunk of his semi-pro, one-and-done, rent-a-basketball team to the NBA. So maybe karma and respect go hand in hand.

But the news is on every night. Candidates for offices at every level across America are exchanging ludicrous charges. Companies in every industry are doing everything they can to lure customers and drive up stock prices. The culture war between respect and cynicism goes on every day.

So here’s the challenge.

Ask yourself which you value more.

Are you a win-at-all-costs kind of person? The kind who bets on cynicism as the bottom line of the human condition?

Or do you believe in respect? Are you willing to put your name down as someone who wants to build a culture of respect in America, in every field and every endeavor?

Maybe, just maybe, respect starts with something as simple as how we tie our shoes. At least that’s the way Coach Wooden taught it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rule #49: Border Guards

In 1968 I went to Germany to connect with my brother, Mark.

He was finishing up a Fulbright scholarship in German and when his academic program was over we took his newly purchased VW bug and drove to Prague. The Czechs were celebrating an outbreak of freedom from the Soviet Union (this was back when there was both a Czechoslovakia and a Soviet Union). Prague was filled with happy, carefree young people, students at bars and cafes, drinking beer and luxuriating in what was called Prague Spring.

We celebrated with them for a time, but finally we had to get back to West Germany (there was also a West and East Germany back then). To do that meant we would pass through an East German military checkpoint.

We pulled up to the checkpoint and a huge East German border guard armed with a scary looking sub-machine gun took our passports, looked at them dismissively, and ordered us to get out of the line of cars that had been allowed transit, and to park over in an area off to one side.

Three hours later we were still parked there. Waiting. Watching other cars pass through the checkpoint. Wondering what had happened to our passports. And looking at the big East German soldiers and their lethal-looking weapons.

Finally, my brother had had enough.

He waved one of the guards over and said in perfect German, "One of your buddies took our passports and he's probably all the way over in West Berlin by now."

The look on the border guard's face betrayed his emotions. He'd been insulted--in at least three ways.

First, who ever heard of an American who spoke perfect German--with the appropriate Bavarian accent?

Second, it was an insult to think an East German soldier would steal anything--especially from an American!

And third, no self-respecting East German soldier would ever even think of running off to West Germany!

The border guard goose-stepped back to the booth, found our passports where they'd been carelessly left lying around, and waved us through the checkpoint.

We made it--but only because my brother was brave enough to confront the border guard.

I've been telling that story lately to all kinds of groups of business people, in all kinds of companies and organizations, and all age groups and nationalities.

And I always get the same reaction: people nod. They know that each of us has his or her own border guards that keep us from growing, experimenting, innovating, listening, learning.

One man held up his hand when I told the story in his group and said, "My border guard is, I always have to be right." Another said, "I always have to be in control."

Sometimes a company's border guard isn't a person--it's a tradition. "That's not the way we do things around here." Or an unwillingness to experiment. "It won't work anyway, so why even try." Or a feeling of helplessness. "The boss will never go for that."

And, to be fair, sometimes a smart border guard is exactly what a company needs.

One of Steve Jobs' greatest strengths was his ability to say "no." When he came back to Apple, he cut off projects that made no sense, ended unfocused activities that weren't core to Apple's business. His border-guard-like focus kept Apple focused and prevented the company from wandering into areas that weren't what Apple was all about.

But for most of us, most leaders and organizations, that's not the case.

Most of the time, we get offered an opportunity to try something new, and some little voice in our heads tells us, "That's not really you!" Even if it could be. Our own border guard keeps us from innovating, from experimenting, from expanding into new, unexplored territory.

And companies and organizations that want to innovate, but keep finding themselves frustrated in their efforts--for them, the problem could well be the border guards, inside the company and out, that confine them to a small territory that is already too-well known.

"Our customers would never go for that."
"We probably couldn't sell it any way."
"Marketing would like it, but I can tell you right now, manufacturing will kill it."

There are more border guards than there are good ideas. Which is why so many successful organizations end up suffering from their own success. The border guards take over and erect a wall that keeps the organization from getting to the fresh thinking and new ideas that are on the other side of the border.

What are your border guards? Are they helpful in giving you focus? Or harmful in keeping you confined?

What are your company's border guards? Can you name them?

And what would happen if you confronted them? Maybe, just maybe, they'd produce your passport to the other side, and you'd discover a whole new, fertile area for your exploration.

It's worth a try!

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb