by Steve Adubato, PhD
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver demonstrated the kind of leadership that is all too rare in professional circles. He stepped up, made a tough decision, communicated it in a clear, unambiguous fashion, and did it in a timely manner. He did not equivocate, take any polls, test the waters or hide behind lawyers — which, in fact, he is himself.
In the case of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his outrageously racist and disgusting comments, Silver methodically confirmed the voice on the tape was Sterling’s. He reportedly spoke directly to Sterling, who confirmed the voice was his and offered no remorse or apology.
After that, the NBA commissioner said this: "The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful. That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic league."
Silver fined Sterling the maximum $2.5 million for his well-publicized racist rant and said he would "do everything in my power" to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.
Translation: Silver was sending a message directly to the NBA’s board of governors, which is made up of the 30 team owners, that he expected them to get on board, to follow his lead and to vote to remove Sterling from his ownership of the Clippers. NBA rules dictate that three-quarters of the NBA owners must vote for the removal of a fellow owner before it can take effect.
One of the many reasons Silver’s decisive and strong leadership in the Sterling matter has been universally praised is because we just don’t see it that often in business, education, sports and many other professional arenas.
Too many CEOs use a decision-making approach in which they consult with countless advisers, committees and levels of bureaucracy that almost guarantees any decision they make will not be decisive and strong. Rather, it will be watered down, muted and weak.
In business schools, students often ask which leadership style is best. Is it the participatory, democratic approach that involves getting many points of view and trying to achieve consensus? Or is it going with your gut instincts and principles, communicating what you believe deeply and then using your powers of persuasion to get others to follow? Clearly, the answer to this age-old question depends on the situation.
Being a dictator does not make you a good leader. But constantly seeking consensus and input before making a decision can sometimes cause paralysis in an organization.
In the Sterling case, Silver utilized a decision-making approach that was totally appropriate. How much of an investigation into the facts was really needed? How many advisers (including lawyers) and committees did he need to consult with?
Sometimes, for a leader, a situation is black or white and we overcomplicate things by refusing to go with our gut instincts.
Silver did what was right as a leader and as a human being, and he made a decision from the right place. Now, it is his job to communicate with NBA owners to get them to follow.
I’m betting they will, because if they don’t, the NBA’s brand and reputation, not to mention its bottom line, will be in serious jeopardy.