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NBA Sterling Drama: The Perils of Avoiding Conflict Within Your Team

Leaders who sidestep messy arguments tend to think they're doing the mature thing. In reality, they're avoiding their most important responsibility.
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The NBA has always known that Donald Sterling had the potential to create public-relations catastrophes.

Why, then, did the league never act on it--until an actual PR catastrophe took place?

From my perspective, it's a commonplace case of narrow-minded leadership, manifesting itself through conflict avoidance. Leadership expert Patrick Lencioni, in his essay "The Trouble With Teamwork," spells out the problem:

CEOs who go to great lengths to avoid conflict often do so believing that they are strengthening their teams by avoiding destructive disagreement. This is ironic, because what they are really doing is stifling productive conflict and pushing important issues that need to be resolved under the carpet where they will fester. Eventually, those unresolved issues transform into uglier and more personal discord when executives grow frustrated at what they perceive to be repeated problems. 

That paragraph sums up the Sterling situation. NBA leadership--specifically, David Stern, the predecessor to current commissioner Adam Silver--never publicly acted on Sterling's track record of trouble. If you're unfamiliar with that track record, it includes a multi-million dollar lawsuit settlement with the Justice Department, which accused him of "systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned," reports the New York Times. 

This settlement was hardly a hidden story. A June, 2009 article in ESPN includes some of Sterling's depositions from the DOJ suit. If you think what he said to Anderson Cooper was incendiary, you should take a look at these depositions. 

The point is that Stern and the NBA, to paraphrase Lencioni, pushed important issues that needed to be resolved under the carpet, where they festered. 

"The content of his lawsuits alone should have been acted on, but the other members of the club--in addition to Stern--should have [held him] accountable," is what one high-level NBA official told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports a few weeks ago. "But no one would touch it. We were always holding players, teams and coaches accountable, yet the standard for owners has been a double standard."

Wojnarowski concludeds: "For all the chances Stern had to make a move on Sterling, it never happened because the NBA's owners never pushed Stern to do it. These owners were willing to live with Sterling, willing to be embarrassed by him."

Here's the lesson: If there's a latent conflict or tension in your organization, you need to bring it up while it is still latent. Don't think you're showing true leadership by pushing it under the carpet. It will come back to bite you, and your organization.

What's the best way to bring latent conflicts to the surface, so your leadership team can discuss them and act on them? It's a complicated process--and it's a big reason that Lencioni's firm, The Table Group, is in business. However, here are two quick pointers: 

1. Lead by demonstrating your own vulnerability. If you're the CEO or owner, chances are you're aware of one topic or other that's making your top team or employees resentful, angry, or uncomfortable. Next time you're speaking to the entire company, or the relevant group, bring it up. Confess to it. Ask for feedback about it. Seek ways to improve on it. Make yourself vulnerable. And do it all in a public way. You can't expect your employees to bring up uncomfortable truths if you, as the leader, are keeping uncomfortable topics close to the vest. 

2. Cultivate a culture in which no one is hesitant to oppose you or argue with you. For an example, look no further than Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who recently announced he was stepping down. Al Amador, a principle consultant with Lencioni's firm, The Table Group, likes to tell a story about how Mulally was once asked to name his greatest "technological" contribution to Ford's turnaround.

"I taught my executive team how to argue," was his answer--all but ignoring the word "technological." But never mind the details. The point is that from Mulally's perspective, altering the chemistry of the top team came first: specifically, the change in its behavior, from consensus-seeking to conflict-airing.

In Ford's case, that behavior was the key to an historical turnaround. In the NBA's case, it could've been the key to preventing an historical PR catastrophe. 




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