Like much of the country on Thursday, I was keeping one eye on March Madness--the summit of college basketball--when both of my eyes were drawn to something slightly disturbing.
It was during the second half of the Michigan State University-Bradley University game. Michigan State forward Aaron Henry didn't give his maximum effort on a play, and his revered coach, Tom Izzo, absolutely tore into him. I mean, to the point that guard Cassius Winston had to physically separate the finger-stabbing, apoplectic coach from his forward. Izzo even lunged at Henry.
Think I'm exaggerating? Watch for yourself:
I found it quite curious that the announcers returned to the incident, even after commercial break, defending Izzo. They explained the behavior away as "it's tournament time" and lauded him for driving accountability. ESPN analysts would later reinforce the message that there's nothing wrong with what Izzo did--again citing the need for accountability, in what I found to be a very dismissive, "give me a break" fashion.
Georgia Bulldog basketball coach Tom Crean, who used to work for Izzo, weighed in similarly:
Love pushes you and hugs you. Tom Izzo makes everyone around him accountable and responsible. I've been gone 20 years from his staff and there is many a day I wish he'd tell and yell at me again. It always made me better.-- Tom Crean (@TomCrean) March 22, 2019
Since the incident, Izzo has refused to apologize. Here's what he said in a post-game conference:
What's wrong with challenging a kid that makes some mistakes? Aaron Henry, trust me, did some things that you can't do as a starter on a top-five team at the end of your freshman year. They were effort-related. I did get after him. He did respond. He did make a couple of big buckets. He did make some big free throws, but that's not good enough. It's one-and-done time. The "my-bads" are out the window.
I'm a fan of Tom Izzo. He's proven himself over the years to be an outstanding coach who has positively molded and shaped the lives of many former players and staff. Shouting matches between him and players aren't uncommon, and are accepted because of the strength of the underlying relationships Izzo works to build. Indeed, Henry himself said after the game, "I've heard worse from him. I've got it worse in practice before."
So that makes Izzo's behavior OK?
Here's why I think Izzo is wrong.
I've led thousands of people over my career, often in heated times, always with the importance of holding people accountable weighing on my mind. I'm not saying I always got it right, but I can tell you that Izzo's kind of overemotional overreaction is always uncalled for.
It can leave scars, no matter what the recipient says. It creates self-doubt and uncertainty as to when it will happen again, and it always requires an apology--at least privately, if not also publicly.
I'm not advocating for "candy-ass" leadership or coddling. But this can't be written off as, "Oh, those Millennials/Gen-Z-ers are sooo sensitive!" This is a breakdown in common human decency and respect. It's an utter lack of emotional intelligence.
Yes, I know it's one-and-done in this tournament. If you lose, you're out. Then what? Does the sun crash into the Earth? Was Henry putting lives in danger? Was holding him accountable worth a public display I wouldn't want my child to experience? (And no, I'm no snowplow parent who doesn't want his child to face life's tough obstacles.)
There are better ways to drive accountability and to teach in teachable moments. You can control your emotions while still being firm. You can point out how the shortfall isn't achieving the objective, and cogently describe the desired alternative behavior.
If you aren't getting through, try another way--always tinged with patience, whether you're under time pressures or not. As a leader, you have to assume your people care about doing good work. Create an environment where they can do so, and be firm but even-tempered.
Maybe there's a special bond between Izzo and his players, so that when he goes off like that, it's understood that it's with good intent. But when others witness that kind of behavior, what are they to take away?
As a leader, you live in a fish bowl--swimming around the center of it all with many eyes watching. What would happen if you lunged at an employee at work? It's OK because you two are beer buddies off the clock?
I'd love to hear if you think I'm overreacting to Izzo's overreaction. Just don't lunge at me.