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Marty Linsky

Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Cam being Cam

Question: Despite suspension over honor code violations and an ongoing investigation into his recruitment, Auburn's Cam Newton last week won the Heisman Trophy--an award meant to honor "pursuit of excellence with integrity." The award raises a dilemma faced by many organizations: In dealing with top performers, how much should leaders overlook corner cutting, rule breaking and other integrity issues?

Once in an interview in response to the question '"How do you manage all those newly rich, testosterone-rich, self-absorbed men on a professional football team?" Bill Parcells answered exactly the opposite of what I thought he would say. He said, "I treat each of them differently."

There's an important truth and an irony there. In order to create a team, he had to understand each individual's quirks, defaults and idiosyncrasies, and then customize his interventions to what would work with each of them. This is not just a sports issue. Lyndon Johnson ran the Senate that way as well. He was willing to do whatever it took with any individual senator to make progress in the Senate as a whole. Flattery, yelling, trading, arm twisting and legal bribes were all in his arsenal. But LBJ, like Parcells, always kept his eye on the ball. They both knew what they were trying to accomplish, what exceptions could be made and what standards they had to hold everyone to as they targeted their approach.

Cam Newton was undoubtedly the best football player in the nation this year. But like Pete Rose's betting keeping him out of the Hall of Fame, the issue here is what the Heisman trophy stands for. Newton's being awarded the trophy makes a mockery of the word "integrity" in the Heisman mantra. Now every kid in high school will think that he or she should be excused from the basic rules of honesty if good enough on the field.

I believe in redemption. Michael Vick has tried hard to earn a second chance. So has Chuck Colson. And Michael Milken. But Cam Newton, as marvelous as he is to watch when he has the ball, has not done the hard work that would be necessary to measure up to what the Heisman says it represents.

If the Heisman voters had the courage to say no, as the Hall of Fame voters have done, the trophy would have continued to embody something more lasting than football statistics.

To take another example from sports: In mid-season of 2008, the Boston Red Sox traded arguably their best hitter, Manny Ramirez, when his special treatment and individualistic behavior was undermining the team. For years, "Manny being Manny" had become an excuse to tolerate actions that would not have been acceptable from a lesser player. Finally, he pushed it too far and "Manny being Manny" no longer was an adequate justification for making him an exception to the rules of conduct by which everyone else had to abide.

It is always tempting to look the other way when as top performer in breaking the rules. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize that you are only giving lip service to the rules. Eventually, tolerating high-performing "rule breakers" will erode the culture and undermine the more enduring values embedded in what you are trying to accomplish. Think Wall Street.

By Marty Linsky

 |  December 15, 2010; 1:47 PM ET
Category:  A leader's team , Accomplishing Goals , Ethics , Failures , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , NFL , Organizational Culture , Quarterbacks , Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Offer redemption, then show the door | Next: When what you do outweighs who you are


Please report offensive comments below.

Well, that is just the way the public and these committes are going these days. Vick may deserve a second chance, but I don't think that getting back in the NFl right away ( even after his prison time was done)was right. Let him start from the bottom.As for Newton, well, I think they were afraid of the backlash. It would have taken a lot of guts to vote for someone else. Most didn't have those guts. Too bad. It does send a bad signal to kids and their parents.

Posted by: bake2011 | December 19, 2010 10:31 AM
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