(s)He's Just Like That
Over the past few weeks, we've seen the unravelling of the career of Urban Meyer, at breakneck pace. Meyer is one of only two Head Coaches, along with Nick Saban, to win College Football National Championships at more than one school (Florida in 2006 and 2008 and Ohio State in 2015) and, like many successful college coaches before him, he leverage this success and took the leap into coaching at a professional franchise when he became Head Coach of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this year.
Thirteen games later, his time in the NFL was over, fired after delivering a record of 2-11 (two wins, eleven losses for those not familiar with american sports), being filmed appearing to grope a woman who wasn't his wife, being accused of kicking his kicker and calling his coaching staff "losers". So what happened? How did someone held so high on the coaching pedestal fall so badly and so quickly from grace? Well the truth is, he probably didn't.
One of the phrases I heard a lot in my early years in banking, which never sat well with me, was "He/she is just like that". More often that not, it was a male being referred to, and it was used as mitigation for behaviour that should never have been tolerated. Public floggings, inappropriate comments, lack of emotional control - all brushed aside with "He's just like that". And while the circumstances and the individuals varied, the thread that connected these stories was the fact that the protagonist was considered, by those who wielded the power in the business unit, to be important; a high performer, a big earner, someone with key skills or knowledge who was deemed to be difficult to replace. And so, the behaviour went unchecked and as the old adage goes, "if you accept it, expect it!"
People will tolerate a lot when times are good. When the team is winning, the department is getting a lot of praise or the business is generating money, those sort of behaviours are regularly overlooked, and so they perpetuate and they grow. Those in management do it, get away with it and are seen to thrive either in spite of or because of it, so their subordinates start to ape these behaviours, and they spread through an organisation. After all, in businesses where hierarchies are strong, what's interesting to my boss is fascinating to me, so I start to do what my boss does, to earn their favour and the rewards and opportunities that come hand in hand with it. And so, before you know it, these are the norms.
But what happens when the times aren't so good? When the rewards and the plaudits and the benefits of high performance aren't being reaped and shared across the team? Ultimately, people get tired of it. Walking on eggshells or risking being roasted by someone senior might be ok when the wins are coming or the sales and bonuses are good, but when those dry up, people won't stand for it, and the cracks start to show. Looking back through the reports of his various stops, you can see that Meyer's behaviours have been called into question before, right back to accusations of a toxic culture at Florida. The difference was, Florida were winning, so I've no doubt that anyone who fell foul of his misdemeanours was soothed with an arm round the shoulder and a chorus of "He's just like that". But the Jags weren't winning, and so people spoke up and those in power had ever more reasons to listen.
Ultimately, the responsibility for an individual's behavior lies squarely on their shoulders. Each of us must take accountability for our own actions, and their impact. However each of us is also a custodian of the culture that exists in every group we're a part of. Families, businesses, sports teams, churches, social groups - each has a culture and we all have our part to play in it. And if we walk past those 'broken windows' of behaviour, we're sending a message that we tolerate them. And in doing so, we're creating a fertile environment in which we're likely to see more of those behaviours grow. I look back on a couple of incidents I witnessed right at the start of my time in business with regret; I saw people behave in ways I knew were wrong, and I raised my voice a little, but did I really do everything I could have done to show that they weren't acceptable and that they shouldn't be tolerated? No. I excused myself through my inexperience and my youth. How may people saw Urban Meyer displaying behaviours that they knew were wrong and were out of step with the values and culture that Bowling Green, Florida Gators, Ohio State Buckeyes or Jacksonville Jaguars espoused, but turned a blind eye or said "He's just like that?" And how might things have been different along the journey if they hadn't?