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Clueless Leadership

How hierarchy leads to bad outcomes in sports and politics

by James Leroy Wilson
March 25, 2014

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Clueless Leadership

ESPN's SVP & Russillo Show has been running a "Coaches Bracket" wherein you can vote for the greatest coach of all time, regardless of sport. (As of March 25, it's down to eight finalists from an initial 64; sorry if your favorite's been eliminated.)

It can't be anything except just for fun, to answer "who is your favorite larger-than-life personality who happened to be a successful coach?"

Because otherwise, it's hard to imagine how to compare their job performances across sports. The skill sets between being a basketball head coach and a football coach are vastly different. A college football or basketball coach is the head and face of a program, and success is primarily in recruiting based on his or her abilities and personality.

But there, the similarities end: the head football coach has some 6-7 times the roster of a basketball team and a far greater number of assistants. Basketball coaches, however, must lead his team through a grueling schedule of three times as many games.

Pro coaches face different grinds: star players can overshadow them (quick: who was coach of the Green Bay Packers 2000-2005 during the Brett Favre era?); and they often report to General Managers who choose the players for them.

But one thing seems clear enough: coaching basketball is easier than football, baseball, or hockey, for the simple reason that it's a smaller, close-knit group. The head coach has fewer people to manage.

That's probably why you don't tend to hear of basketball players getting into off-field trouble as often as football players. There are likely fewer cliques in the clubhouse and greater accountability overall.

I wondered about this when I encountered two items today.

The first is Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin promising to have more of a presence in the locker room this year and be more in touch with the players. This was after the Richie Incognito debacle of hazing and harassment of Jonathan Martin. The offensive line coach - the one closest to the situation - was sacked, but Philbin's definitely feeling the pressure.

But how did he not know what was going on? Kevin Carson might give a clue in his essay Magical Thinking and Authority. He writes,

Power, by its very nature, distorts the upward flow of information. Or in the words of systems theorist Kenneth Boulding, 'the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.' The dysfunctional information filtering mechanisms of a hierarchy simply screen out any information that doesn't correspond to what those in authority want to hear.

Applied to the Dolphins case, it could be the Philbin operated as an aloof CEO, or too busy with X and O planning, to have a grasp of the problems in the locker room.

And this is an organization of players, assistants, and other staff that a head coach oversees that number less than 100 in total.

Imagine how much larger the problems are in far larger and far more authoritarian structures such as the military? Or any level of government, particularly the federal government?   What problems exist but are never reported? What is the incentive to report them?

Job security is a strong incentive for any person; even if we want and are looking for another job, we want to keep the job we have until we leave on our own terms. That's what makes large organizations, and especially State organizations, a high risk endeavor. We pay for the mistakes their leaders make, because few if any stand up to them. They don't want to lose their jobs.

That's how we got the Iraq War. And Obamacare.

Makes one wish no organization was any larger than a basketball team.

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