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The leadership lessons of Mike Rice

Mike RiceYou have probably seen by now the video that led to Mike Rice’s firing as men’s basketball coach at Rutgers University. It should be required viewing, not just for players and parents, but for anyone, anywhere, who aspires to a leadership position.

Hurling basketballs at players’ heads while yelling homosexual slurs, among other misdeeds, Rice shows himself to be a man who has traveled well beyond intensity into abuse. In so doing, he has lost his mission, his players, his role, and his values. He and the program he leads lost their way.

Eric Murdock, the team’s former director of player development who made the video public, added another disturbing footnote to the footage. Rice, according to Murdock, changed his behavior to be positive and encouraging whenever former Athletic Director Tim Pernetti entered the gym.

This one comment not only adds to the list of offenses but, more importantly, demonstrates a willful intent to turn away from the acceptable. As the parent of any toddler (or teenager) knows, it is one thing not to know that you’re doing wrong. It is quite another to actively hide it.

I found the video to be a jarring juxtaposition to the studies encapsulated in Dan Pink’s new book, “To Sell is Human.” A leading author on motivation, Pink cites case after case in which empathy accomplishes what abuse, coercion and even contingent if-then rewards never could.

Rice, either by default given who he is or by calculation, opted to pursue motivation through fear and intimidation. The reward he placed in front of his team was the absence of abuse. The price, of course, even for that moment of peace, was that each player and assistant coach became complicit, by silence, in the abuse of those around them.

I have seen bosses and team leaders operate like this. Whether it is the fear of losing one’s job or one’s scholarship, fear can be a powerful thing. It can create the illusion of cohesiveness and it can move people a certain distance for a time. What it can’t create is passion. Fear motivates people to avoid the worst, but causes them to actively conspire against attaining the best. The fact is that when a leader wields a hammer, only a fool stands up.

Throughout his tenure at Rutgers, Mike Rice wielded a hammer. It took a public outcry, finally, for Rutgers to pick up an axe.