A couple of weeks back I riffed on NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's decision to crack down amazingly tough on (disgraced, probably racist), soon-to-be former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling following the release of audio tapes that revealed once and for all time how horrible a person is Mr. Sterling.
Commissioner Silver went full nuclear on Sterling - fining him the maximum allowable amount according to league policy, banning him for life from the Clippers and all NBA matters, and moving (along with the 29 other league owners), to force a sale of the Clippers by Sterling. You can check out my piece linked above for the full take, but essentially I think Silver's response to this first real leadership test was spot-on, and in particular, because it set a decisive tone for his leadership style and approach moving forward.
Fast forward to last week, and we have another pretty high profile leadership (this one mixed in with some tasty talent management) situation from the world of sports - specifically from the United States Men's National Soccer team. In case you missed it, US coach Juergen Klinsmann made news when he dropped US soccer star (and the National team's all time leading scorer), Landon Donovan from the squad of 23 players that will compete in the upcoming World Cup. While Silver's handling of the Sterling mess has been universally lauded and wildly popular, Klinsmann's decision to essentially fire Donovan from the National team has been met with plenty of second-guessing, and is certainly not popular with several of the remaining (and influential) team members. This was a tough managerial decision around talent, and since my job as part of the 8 Man Rotation crew is to help you break down the connections between sports and your job as an HR/talent pro, here are three reasons I can think of why it makes sense for a new leader to make a strategic fire a la Klinsmann:
1. The obvious one - dropping a veteran, established talent that seemed 'safe' by just about every stretch of the imagination signals out to the rest of the team (sports or otherwise), that the new leader is really in charge, and more importantly, has the security and management support to make tough decisions. Much speculation about Klinsmann's decision to drop Donovan from the World Cup squad was that the coach wanted to use that spot to give a younger, less experienced player a great developmental opportunity for what seems to be Klinsmann's true goal - mounting a serious challenge in the next World Cup in 2018, a competition which the then 36 year old Donovan would certainly not factor.
2. A strategic fire can often shake up a content workplace. The US team has been sort of running in place for the last few World Cup cycles. Sure, they have the occasional moments of success and games that make you think they are finally going to be serious contenders at elite competitions. But then they inexplicably fall to some lesser opponents, fail to seriously compete when facing the world's top teams, and generally seem comfortable just qualifying for the World Cup. Klinsmann does not want to reward that kind of status quo, that decade of mediocrity. The remaining players simply need to play better, or Klinsmann will find replacements. Dropping a former star, who still may be able to contribute, signals that performance standards across the entire organization are going up. The other players might think, "Crap, if he was willing to cut Landon, he definitely will drop me if I don't start scoring goals."
3. The leader takes ownership of overall team results - especially if the results are poor. The primary reason in sports that coaches like to 'play it safe' and 'go by the book' is that they don't want to accept blame for failure, since they 'went by the book', whether it is in player selection or game strategy and tactics. In American football, the vast majority of coaches will punt the ball away on 4th down when the data clearly show that running an offensive play to try and keep possession of the ball is almost always the better statistical move. But if the coach plays it safe, and the team loses, he/she can usually shift blame to the players or some other external circumstance. Make 'risky' decisions like unexpectedly cutting a star player like Donovan and have them not pan out? All the blame, or at least a large part of the blame, will land on Klinsmann's shoulders. And I think that is a good thing, more coaches/leaders need to be willing to claim responsibility for failure (and accept the consequences too).
Ok, that's it - I'm out.
Go USA. Try not to lose to any country with less than 1% of our population this time.