by Steve Adubato, PhD

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently stepped up and demonstrated the kind of clear and decisive leadership that is rare in the world of business. Goodell acted and communicated swiftly and with great clarity in responding to a series of embarrassing public relations scandals including the Michael Vick dog fighting fiasco, several Pacman Jones criminal matters and finally “videotape-gate” involving Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his three-time Super Bowl Champions. The New England Patriots were caught red-handed a couple of weeks ago using a videographer to essentially cheat and steal signals from the New York Jets.

Given the Patriots lofty position in the NFL, Roger Goodell, like many corporate executives, could have punted on this one and given a pass to the Patriots, but he didn’t. He took a hard line and communicated directly saying; “This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition…”

Within days of the video-gate disclosure, Goodell issued a $500,000 fine personally on Bill Belichick and a $250,000 fine on the Patriots. In addition, he took away the Patriots’ 2008 first round draft choice as well as additional top draft choices.

Goodell did an in-depth and very candid interview with NBC’s Bob Costas before Sunday night’s football game involving the Patriots and the Chargers. Goodell could have ducked the interview or said the timing wasn’t right. Instead, he took the issue straight on and answered every one of Costas’ questions in a forthright fashion. For that he got big points. One of a leader’s most important jobs is dealing with the media when things go wrong.

Q—Why is it so difficult for many business leaders to communicate proactively when things go wrong?

A—First, it is hard. It is easier to look the other way. Making tough calls and communicating decisively can make some people uncomfortable. Some leaders have a “things will take care of themselves” philosophy; but wishful thinking is no leadership plan. Leading proactively will make some people angry at you and if one of them is a prominent figure like Bill Belichick in the NFL, that can make your life pretty difficult.

Q—What are some of the benefits of leading and communicating in a proactive fashion?

A—In Roger Goodell’s case, he has been praised by many sports writers and commentators. This isn’t just about sports; it is about society and what behavior is and is not acceptable. Goodell has become a role model for many organizational leaders and the way he communicated has set the bar for others. The other benefit is to the organization you serve. The NFL is better and has a great chance to deal with its problems because of the commissioner’s leadership.

Q—Why are so many leaders unwilling or unable to lead and communicate in this fashion?

A—It is difficult and uncomfortable, but most of all, it is because many leaders get away with a passive communication style without serious consequences so they mistakenly convince themselves that such a “status quo” approach is acceptable when in fact it is far from it.

Q—What are the consequences of not leading and communicating in the way Roger Goodell did when a crisis hits?

A—Consider what has happened to Major League Baseball under Commissioner Bud Selig, who has lead and communicated in a weak and confusing manner regarding a raging steroids scandal. You and your organization take a big credibility hit, not to mention a crisis in confidence. Weak communication affects employee morale and finally, has a corrosive effect on the actions of others who look to a leader to set a tone.