Bullying. Hazing. Harassment. Call it whatever one wishes, but the story out of the Miami Dolphins locker room is without question a glaring example of leadership failure. What has happened between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin is plastered throughout the media and there is no need to rehash the details, but there is certainly a need to look at the leadership aspect of the story. Not just leadership at the top, but all the way through the organization, from the front office, to the head coach, to the position coaches and team captains, and even the players. Leadership sets the culture, and clearly there is a massive problem.
I have never been an NFL player. Played a good bit of team sports, been in a locker room or two, shared the banter, the laughs, the jokes, and traditions. However, if there is one thing football players at all levels tend to love wrapping themselves in, it is the warrior culture. This story has reminded me of the journey I, and the military in general, shared from the late 80’s to the later 90’s. To say the military underwent changes in those ten years is an understatement; it was the pre and post Tailhook era. It was a time when the entire military organization, and the Navy and Marine Corps in particular, underwent a very dynamic shift. The pre era had its own culture of hazing, harassment, and various “isms”. It was an interesting time to say the least. It was needed…we can leave it at that. As a junior officer, we were right there in the midst of leading that cultural shift.
If there is one thing that the military instilled in us as leaders, especially during that period of change, it is that we all are responsible for the culture of the organization. We set the tone through our actions and our inactions. It is a formal aspect of leadership as well as an informal, peer-to-peer, senior to subordinate, and institution wide issue. We were all responsible for each other, how we are perceived, and the culture we fostered. We had a responsibility as both leaders and as members of the team, to implement the changes. We were also, above all else, responsible for those we led, our Sailors and Marines were the most prized, precious item in our charge.
What baffles me as a leader is that the Dolphins as an organization completely failed to provide the leadership needed for their players. From the front office all the way down, their actions, and especially their inactions, created an environment that has certainly impacted their ability to perform as a team. Martin left the team and Incognito is suspended. That is just the obvious. What other issues will hit them remain to be seen, but I highly doubt they will be performing at a high level.
From a leadership perspective, it all starts at the top. The Dolphins organization has ownership, general managers, front office Presidents, Vice Presidents and who knows what other titled leaders. They all to one degree or another set the culture. The head coach is ultimately responsible for the players. Did he know exactly what was going on? Who knows, but he certainly created the leadership team of coaches below him and he set the overall tone for the team. Should his junior leaders, his position coaches, have known? Probably so, and I would argue absolutely the Offensive Line Coach should have, he worked with these guys every single day. Did the player leadership know? Well, Incognito was a Team Captain, so that answer is obvious. But above all the other leadership failures, it is the peer-to-peer leadership that truly failed. Not just as leaders, but as fellow players, the players that make up the Dolphins locker room allowed things to happen to their teammates that are just inexcusable.
The whole story is sad. There is no other way I can comment than to use the phrase “leadership failure”. The entire culture of the organization, at least in Miami, is a mess. In an attempt to look for a lesson in all of this, it is the lesson of poor leadership that keeps coming to mind. Often times we are asked for positive leadership lessons, but sometimes the best lessons are found in failure. The cultural fiasco that is the Dolphins locker room is a lesson on how not to lead. That is about the best that can come of this ongoing story.