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The Leadership Lessons of Mike Rice

You may have seen the video by now. It should be required viewing, not just for players and parents, but for anyone, anywhere, who aspires to a leadership position.

Mike Rice is the former coach of the Rutgers men’s basketball coach. In a video just made public, but reviewed by Rutgers officials last year, Rice is shown physically and verbally abusing players beyond the bounds of coaching, leadership, and simple civility. Hurling basketballs at players heads while yelling homosexual slurs Rice shows himself to be a man who has traveled well beyond intensity into abuse. In so doing, he has lost his mission, his players, his role, and his values.

Both he and the program he leads have lost their way.

Speaking out on the attached video, Eric Murdock, Rutgers’ former Director of Player Development, added another disturbing footnote to the hundreds of hours of practice video turned in to Rutgers officials.  He said that Rice changed his behavior to be positive and encouraging whenever Tim Pernetti, the Rutgers Athletic Director, entered the gym.

This one comment not only adds to the list of offenses, but more importantly, demonstrates a willful intent to turn away from the acceptable. As the parent of any toddler (or teenager) knows, it is one thing not to know that you’re doing wrong.  It is quite another to actively hide it.

I found this video to be a jarring juxtaposition to the studies encapsulated in Dan Pink’s new bookTo Sell is Human. A leading author on motivation, Pink cites case after case in which empathy accomplishes what abuse, coercion, and even contingent if-then rewards never could.  Rice, either by default given who he is or by calculation, opted to pursue motivation through fear and intimidation.  The reward he placed in front of his team was the absence of abuse. The price, of course, even for that moment of peace, was that each player and assistant coach became complicit, by silence, in the abuse of those around him.

I have seen bosses and team leaders operate like this. Whether it is the fear of losing one’s job or one’s scholarship, fear can be a powerful thing. It can create the illusion of cohesiveness and it can move people a certain distance for a time. What it can’t create is passion. Fear motivates people to avoid the worst, but causes them to actively conspire against attaining the best. The fact is that when a leader wields a hammer, only a fool stands up.

Throughout his tenure at Rutgers, Mike Rice wielded a hammer. Here’s to Tim Pernetti, finally, carrying an axe.