Break ups are hard. Breakdowns - like the breakdown of a team into a toxic, confusing, accusing quagmire, are infinitely harder. When these things happen, we seem to have a natural inclination to blame. Usually, we look to blame a person. Why? Because blaming or shaming that person or showing them the door makes us feel like we've made the problem go away. In truth, this is almost never the case.

Breakdowns, and the breakups that often follow, grow from something deeper. Right now the Pittsburg Steelers and their head coach Mike Tomlin are playing in this zone and playing out a familiar melodrama. It's a case study that can teach us how to avoid our own team's demise - but only if we dip below the salacious headlines and get to the root of the problem: culture.

Here's The Trouble

Forget whether or not you like or follow pro football. Set aside if the names Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, Big Ben Roethlisberger or even the Pittsburgh Steelers are unfamiliar to you. None of that is relevant to this story. Yet that's the trouble - at least the visible trouble.

For a good six months now, sports headlines about this storied sports franchise have focused on one theme: he said-he said. At the heart of it is the wildly talented, but equally untamable wide receiver Antonio Brown. He of the incredible, circus-like catches and timely touchdowns is one in the same with the mercurial, often selfish prima donna. His temper tantrums on the sidelines and on national television are the stuff of legend. They are also the regular flashpoint for a media rodeo. For several days, sometimes weeks after Brown loses it, journalists and football fanatics seek out the coach (Tomlin), the quarterback and de facto leader if the team (Roethlisberger), or anybody who might be willing to drop a juicy tidbit about what it's like to live and work with this diva day-to-day.

And that's where this story tends to go off the rails. It's also precisely the point at which the true source of the trouble gets missed, the very thing all of us ought to be paying attention to: the team's culture.

The Real Problem, Hidden In Plain Sight

In the last few weeks, after the Steelers failed to make the playoffs and their Super Bowl dreams came to an end, the storyline has focused on the decaying relationship between the team and Brown. Oddly, many have treated as a revelation, as though their shocked to learn that the deterioration goes way back. Yup, it does. And it's no surprise, in this situation or any other. Rarely do humans pick up their toys, name call and go home in one fell swoop. It's cumulative. Always. And then after the more public revelation it continues - an accumulation of quotes and comments mostly airing out everybody's dirty laundry. Though with the Steelers (or any other team or organizational breakdown for that matter) we like the voyeuristic sideshow of mudslinging and armchair quarterbacking over who's to blame, none of it reveals the problem - except for a comment made by Coach Tomlin to his team about their volatile teammate. "We will tolerate him until his production falls or we can replace him."

Tomlin's comment isn't just a comment - about one incident, one person, or one moment in time. It's a cultural decision. It reflects priorities that says, 'results first, all else second.' In and of itself that strategy is problematic. Any seasoned leader knows that you simply cannot produce the results you want or meet the goals you set if you put 'everything else' in the backseat, floor it, and hope for the best. A prototypical example: The entrepreneur who declares he or she is only in it for the money is the canary in the coal mine signal that the odds of success have just been lowered to near zero.

It gets worse. According to players, people close to the team, and even the media (including Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL Network), "Mike Tomlin loves to say, "We will tolerate you until we can replace you."" Did you catch that? He's said it more than once, perhaps even sees it as his go to phrase. This is the real issue, one hidden in plain sight.

Deeper Than Any One

Is the problem Tomlin's leadership philosophy? Or is it perhaps the orders from on high to Tomlin from the team's owners to produce at all costs? Is it a lack of leadership on the part of the team's veteran quarterback? All of these theories have been publicly batted around. And we can continue to 24/7 sports talk it all we want, but in the end it doesn't matter. What does matter is that all of this, and especially Tomlin's go to catch phrase, reflects a culture gone wrong.

It doesn't mean the people in it, Brown included, are inherently bad people or don't want to see the team succeed. It doesn't mean that the Steeler's aren't a good football team or that they can't win games. (They are and they do.) But several seasons in a row now, as this witch's stew has slowly brewed below the surface headlines, one thing is undeniable: The team has not reached its larger goal - to play deep into the playoffs and make it to the Super Bowl. And this past season it became all too apparent that whatever philosophy has been keeping the team going, is now unraveling.

As can happen in any organization, it appears that a lot of well-intentioned, highly paid, deeply talented people missed the one thing they needed more than anything else: culture. You can say they have one, a toxic one. But a toxic environment isn't so much the sign of a bad culture, as it is a sign of a culture's absence.

Published on: Jan 31, 2019
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