What Leaders Can Learn from Donald Sterling’s Big Mouth

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May 1, 2014

This week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver made the decision to ban Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling from the NBA for life in response to racist comments. Sterling has also been fined $2.5 million dollars for his offense.

You could practically hear people clapping and cheering online as everyone backed Silver’s decision to ban Sterling, and the obvious lesson here is pretty simple: don’t be racist.

But, there’s a lot more to the story that leaders can learn from the Sterling incident:

1. Leaders are held to a higher standard

We are constantly seeing players in the media with far worse offenses than being a racist jerk. They usually get a slap on the wrist, a fine they can certainly afford and they’re back to playing in the next game.

It didn’t take very long at all for the commissioner to wash his hands of Sterling and publicly condemn Sterling’s views on behalf of the NBA. The longest tenured owner in the NBA was given the boot just days after the racist allegations were made.

Leaders need to understand and respect the standards that they have to live up to. Sometimes it seems the higher up the ladder people get; the more they forget how far the fall is.

This means holding one another accountable, on or off the court.

2. Bad behavior reflects on the entire organization

Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers did an amazing job of prioritizing his next moves after the allegations were made public.

Instead of attacking Sterling, Rivers pleaded for fans to realize that this wasn’t a reflection on the team. Rivers knows enough about his business to realize that Sterling’s actions put the whole team in jeopardy by alienating their fans. Rivers’ said:

Today, I had a meeting with the members of our organization. When you are around all these people, you realize they are just as upset and embarrassed by the situation and it does not reflect who they really are. That was what I got from all of them. They are now a part of this and they are upset at this. But, they are all going to hang in there and so are we — I can tell you that as a group and as a team.”

3. Defined values are there for a reason

The leader and nerd in me quickly Googled the NBA constitution after the news of Sterling’s ban went viral. I wanted to see if the league has defined values on which they build their culture.

Although the league constitution ended up being confidential and not available to the public, I think it is safe to assume that they’ve got this covered.

Organizational values are there for a reason — they help us make decisions, steer growth and define professional conduct. I’m sure the league has their own reasons for their secrecy, but this situation creates a strong case for transparent values. Silver wanted to protect the league values, and in doing so, showed honor and respect to the entire organization.

A leadership wake up call

Good news travels fast, but bad news travels at lightening speeds. That holds just as true in the media, as it does in any organization.

If you’re thinking that this article is quite the stretch from pop-culture to leadership issues, you’ve obviously never been in a room full of liquored up executives. Sterling is just one of many wake-up calls that we need higher standards, stronger values and a renewed respect for one another in our leadership.

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