NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and leadership

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Let’s all for the moment assume we agree that racism has no place in American society; further, let’s agree that it certainly has no place in major league sports. But let’s also agree that it still exists in many pockets of our communities. Even in a sport where it has been reported that nearly 75 percent of the active players are African-American, we instinctively know that racism exists.

The NBA is a big business . . . . a VERY big business. It’s one that not only serves players and fans, but also consumer-facing brands, the broader media space, families and children, and various people and organizations that support the sport and those supported by the sport.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver joined the league in 1992 and held a number of important positions before becoming commissioner in February. Players, staff, owners, fans, sponsors, sports writers, newscasters, politicians and just about everybody else has a point of view on the actions taken by Silver to the recordings of Donald Sterling’s racist comments. Some think it’s too tough; others think it was just right; and some think it will be difficult to impossible to enforce. What he did do is pass out the harshest actions possible under the governing bylaws of the NBA.

As a team owner, Sterling certainly knows (or should know) the formal rules pertaining to franchise ownership and, as a very successful businessman, he certainly knows (or should know) the rules of the road. Furthermore, common sense would suggest that knowingly making such comments to anyone while (knowingly) being recorded is simply stupid.

Without going into the details of this ugly matter, I do want to acknowledge, in my personal opinion, that the actions taken by Silver demonstrated a tremendous amount of leadership. And his decisive actions triggered accolades from the media, the players, fans, most (if not all) of the owners, and many others.

What is leadership in this context? Leadership is setting a standard of conduct, unambiguously describing your values, and clearly articulating a set of goals. Leadership is taking a stand! And leadership is doing so in a timely, clear manner. Silver has done all of this. He should be applauded because he simply did the right thing. He did the right thing for his league, teams, players, fans, sponsors and, frankly, the country.

Most people want to work with and follow a focused, driven leader. Most people want to be with people that they respect. It doesn’t have to be about “liking” someone; rather it’s about believing in a common purpose – that is what leaders do, they provide the common value(s) and story – the narrative – that most of us want to follow, that most of us want to support.

I also believe leadership is about owning one’s mistakes. We all make them – most of us are lucky enough not to have them flashed across the web, television and print. However, true leaders can acknowledge mistakes. Depending on the type of mistake, and who is impacted by it, one can do so pretty directly and successfully. And in this country, most of us love giving people in positions of power a second chance. Sterling is certainly a rich and powerful man; yet he is by no means a leader.

Silver has done the most that he can do under the NBA governing rules. He stripped Sterling of his control of the team; he has placed an interim CEO from the outside, the very high profile corporate executive Richard Parsons; he has levied the maximum $2.5 million fine. It appears that the team will also be forced to be sold to a new owner, and the commissioner has made it crystal clear to owners, players, fans, staff, sponsors and the general public that such behavior will not be tolerated in the NBA.

Hopefully, such behavior will not be repeated. Perhaps the great benefit of this crisis will be to spread the message in a highly public and emotionally charged forum what the values of the NBA are and what the league stands for. To reinforce what is expected of the teams and players alike on important, high-profile matters that can influence cash flow and affect franchise value. Maybe this will extend the conversation to other forms of discrimination as well, including the rights of openly gay athletes in this country – another topic that is top of mind today.

All too often we witness people, companies, political leaders all taking a stand to suddenly reverse themselves after some sort of pressure is exerted. In the recent case of pop culture, television’s hit series “Duck Dynasty” on A&E, the series patriarch, Phil Robertson, makes anti-gay comments in an interview published in GQ Magazine.

The network suspended Mr. Robertson from the show only to reverse its decision in a matter of days. The facts were the facts, he did say what he said in the interview, and Mr. Robertson never denied his statements. What did happen seems to be about ratings and money on the part of A&E management. They ended the suspension within days because the network was threatened by the rest of the cast by not continuing with the series (even though they were under contract). What values does A&E represent? What happened to an opportunity to take a stand on something important? Or maybe they indeed did take a stand? Maybe they measured the collective response of their constituencies in much the same way the NBA did?

Taking a stand IS HARD. But it’s much more difficult to make up some excuse to explain why back tracking is not back tracking, or ignoring facts is not worse than dealing with a problem head on. Each of us is faced with tough decisions on a daily basis – thankfully most of them aren’t as substantial as what Silver had to address. But we are constantly challenged to do the right thing. Most of the time we make the right decisions.

So, thank you NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Your leadership was strong, clear, timely and damned impressive. All of us, whether sports fans, athletes, team owners, television stars, municipal workers, investment bankers, students or teachers, must all learn from your decisive action that such behavior is simply not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Leadership is about articulating your values and then acting on them in a timely manner. Well done Mr. Commissioner.


As Global Sector Leader, Media & Entertainment at Korn Ferry, Mr. Simon brings to the Firm an extensive background as an entertainment executive with a keen understanding of a wide variety of areas of the industry. The Media, Entertainment and Convergence sector that he oversees encompasses all aspects of traditional entertainment film, television, home entertainment, music and publishing and all digital content and platforms for broadband, games, wireless and mobile devices. Mr. Simon handles the full range of senior operating positions from CEO and COO through senior level creative and content positions.

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