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Ed O'Malley

Ed O'Malley

A former state legislator and gubernatorial aide, Ed O’Malley is President and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center, a first-of-its-kind training center charged with fostering large-scale civic leadership for healthier communities. He tweets at eomalley.

How Pelosi is like KU's Coach Gill

Question: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week confronted a dilemma faced by many leaders: whether to step aside when things go wrong. What should be the criteria guiding such a decision? Did Pelosi make the right choice? Should she have offered to resign but let her caucus make the decision? What about Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid?

The masses shouted:

"The Speaker should step down!"

"Sack the CEO!"

"Push the coach out the door!"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces a situation many authority figures face when they are linked to poor results. But Pelosi can take heart, she has a kindred spirit here in the Heartland. University of Kansas head football coach, Turner Gill, isn't a politician, but his job is political. As does Pelosi, Gill makes his living in a full-contact activity. Each also faces a growing chorus of detractors wanting them to step aside.

Coach Gill is in his first year at KU and the year has been awful from most perspectives. The season kicked off with a 6-3 loss to the lower-division University of North Dakota. A series of blowouts followed, including from in-state rival Kansas State University. Sports pundits have called for Coach Gill to step down. Political pundits have called for Speaker Pelosi to do the same. Whether they should is connected to trust, competence and progress.


Coach Gill and Speaker Pelosi need the trust of their colleagues but have found themselves mired in nightmarish football and elections season that have strained those bonds of trust. Coach Gill and Speaker Pelosi should hang in there as long as their bonds of trust are strong with players and administrators and with key donors and party loyalists. When you are in a similar situation, pay special attention to the level of trust in your key relationships before plotting your next move. Keep going if it's strong. Consider stepping aside if it's weak.


Losses can mount on the gridiron or at the ballot box for many reasons. Contextual factors can be at play. The previous coach may have done poor recruiting and left the cupboard bare. A coach may inherit a brutal schedule. A Speaker of the House may be forced to govern during a daunting economic downturn.

Context is one thing, competence is another. A lack of competence can translate into losses. A coach could find himself or herself overwhelmed by the level of competition and at an utter loss about how to proceed. A Speaker of the House could undertake an overly ambitious agenda out of touch with everyday Americans. These scenarios are not about context, but about competence. They should step down if the losses can be mainly attributed to their lack of competence.

When you are in a similar situation, an honest assessment of whether the poor results are primarily due to the overall context or your competence is what should guide you. Stay in the game if it's the context. Let someone else take over if it's about your competence.


Real leadership actually creates conflict, casualties and distress. Progress is difficult. The old axiom "two steps forward one step back" applies. But "one step forward two steps back" is unacceptable. Speaker Pelosi and Coach Gill should move aside if they fit the latter. Like most big challenges facing someone in authority, rebuilding a football program or advancing a political agenda isn't easy work. There will be setbacks.

When you are in a similar situation, try to measure your progress against your setbacks. A low progress-to-setback ratio could help answer the question of whether you should press on or press the stop button. Keep fighting if casualties are limited and progress on what stakeholders care about is significant. Step aside if the limited progresses are overshadowed by mounting casualties.

Evaluating trust, competence and progress is subjective. A true test of leadership is the ability to honestly assess your situation and not simply tell yourself the story you want to hear. This is difficult given the power and esteem connected to significant authority positions that can cloud judgment. So take a careful inventory of the level of trust you have with key stakeholders. Make an honest assessment of how competently you've done your job. Assess your progress-to-setback ratio. The answers to whether Speaker Pelosi, Coach Gill, or you--in a similar situation--should walk away are embedded in these ideas.

By Ed O'Malley

 |  November 9, 2010; 7:53 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Political leadership , Sports Leadership , Succession , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Good leaders never give up? Nonsense | Next: It's a problem of peer judgment


Please report offensive comments below.


I have to take issue with your analogy here. When a coach -- or Speaker -- has been unsuccessful, as in the case of the KU coach, I'd vote for either a last-chance scenario or an outright boot out the door. In sports as in politics, the constituency is very unforgiving when it comes to their leader not being able to deliver the goods.

However, Nancy has delivered -- arguably, maybe watered-down -- the goods for Democrats, much to the chagrin of the Republicans.

I say she stays and the KU coach goes. (And this coming from someone who was born and raised in Kansas.)

Posted by: pmay2 | November 10, 2010 11:06 AM
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