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Why Communication And Presence Must Be Hallmarks Of Leadership: The Lakers Dysfunctional Case Study

18 Jan 2020

By Patrick Rishe

While conducting research for my book on Sports Leadership during the summer of 2018, and in the process of interviewing 50 sports industry executives to tap into their insights on leadership and strategy, the most commonly stated attribute was communication skills.

Since Magic Johnson’s interview on ESPN’s “First Take” Monday morning with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and Molly Qerim, I’ve been reflecting upon this particular attribute of “communication”, as well as some other key leadership attributes cited by my esteemed collection of collaborators, including (1) trustworthiness, (2) being a good listener, (3) building a collaborative environment, and (4) admit mistakes, as doing so as a leader will humanize you.

All day yesterday after the morning interview aired, and throughout the morning today on national sports talk radio shows and newspaper/internet columns across the country, many people are roasting Magic.  Partly for airing the Lakers dirty laundry publicly (which I agree that he shouldn’t have done, in part because it may make the Lakers appear less attractive to free agents this coming summer).  But largely for not being physically present often enough during his tenure as a Lakers executive.

On this latter critique, we must give pause.

In fact, if what Magic said during his Monday interview is accurate, we must lay a large share of culpability at the feet of Lakers owner, Jeanie Buss.

If Buss agreed to allow Magic the flexibility to be “in and out” (as Johnson claimed on “First Take”), then Buss inadvertently sabotaged her own ship and undermined her own leadership.

Buss’ father, the deceased Jerry Buss, purchased the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 for $20 million.  Today, the team’s estimated worth is $3.7 billion.

But despite the evolution of the NBA’s and Lakers’ financial fortunes over the years, and the increased business and financial sophistication of the sports industry in general where shrewd business people run organizations with an increased layer of analytical deftness and business hires are based on merit more than network, the Lakers continue to be run like a family business…where too much stock is placed in loyalties, which can lead to poor communication and favoritism.

Jeanie’s alleged decision to grant Magic “in and out” privileges is the very root of the most recent dysfunctional drama which has unfolded within the Lakers organization, and serves as a lesson in how not to run an organization.  Any organization…let alone an iconic NBA franchise.

But she let it happen because, to her, Magic was “family”.  In the past, they’ve both likened their relationship to pseudo-sibling status…which isn’t surprising given that Magic’s professional career started just as the Buss family assumed Lakers ownership.

Business operations and sports operations in professional sports are quite contrary.  On the business operations side, most teams are quite collaborative with each other.  They share best practices about how to sell more tickets, sell more corporate partnerships, enhance fan engagement, improve arena experiences, and the like.

But on the team operations side, it’s cutthroat competition as teams try their best to gain competitive advantages against their foes on the court, on the ice, on the field.  This includes scouting strategies, physical and mental training techniques, advanced analytics to assess performance trends and opponent tendencies.  And if you want to win a cutthroat competition, you have to be 100% in-it-to-win-it, nose to the grindstone, pedal to the metal, and any other metaphor you can apply…especially when you know the best teams in your sport are “all in”.

In this light, it is a colossal failure of leadership for an owner like Buss to allegedly tell her President of Basketball Operations that it’s cool to be “in and out”:

  • She placed the Lakers at a competitive disadvantage hiring someone who wasn’t as vested as is the case with executives in similar roles with other teams;
  • She created friction between her General Manager (Rob Pelinka) and Johnson, which further created divisiveness within the organization.

If, as Magic claimed, Pelinka was chiding Magic behind his back for not being around, isn’t that understandable to a degree?

If any of you reading this work in an environment where you and one other person are tasked with a key responsibility, and that being present day in and day out is a key facet of the job so as to nimbly and swiftly collaborate effectively as issues arise, wouldn’t you be slightly miffed if the other person was frequently absent?  Might you get frustrated?  Might you share that frustration with your other colleagues?  Perhaps you shouldn’t, but I could understand why people might.

Make no mistake, all parties involved here have a degree of culpability.  Magic should have known that being President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers was not a part-time job, and that if he could only partially commit because of his other business dealings, he shouldn’t have committed at all.  And if Pelinka was frustrated by Magic’s frequent absences, he should have aired his frustrations directly to Magic or to Jeanie Buss.

But ultimately, as it should be with any organization, the buck stops at the top.  Ownership must set the tone.  Unfortunately for the Lakers, ownership has been tone-deaf.  Ownership could have prevented this vicious cycle of dysfunction from flaming out of control…as it has.

Had Buss denied Magic’s alleged “in and out” request, had she required him to be more of a physical presence at the Lakers facility, then Pelinka and others would not have allegedly griped about Magic’s inconsistent presence.

So what are the teaching points about leadership from the Lakers dysfunctional management:

  1. In-person communication is always the best approach to air grievances and chart a strategic course with a unified sense of purpose for an organization;
  2. In a cutthroat industry like professional basketball with intense competition for on-court talent, being 100% committed and having a presence within and at the organization is a must to build a sense of cohesion with your staff and a sense of fairness with peer executives;
  3. Favoritism often leads to executive inequities which ultimately run contrary to an organization being able to effectively collaborate as a cohesive unit.
  4. In a cutthroat industry like professional basketball, the hiring process must be a comprehensive and exhaustive process in order to identify and attract the most qualified people, as favoritism borne from either hiring family friends and/or those with prior organizational ties leads to a limited talent pool which could breed entitled and less driven job candidates.

Read the full article here.
This content was originally published by Forbes Magazine. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Forbes Magazine

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