This past week we’ve seen two very important, although very different, acts of leadership.
The first involved Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association, who created an international sensation with a tape recording of a racist rant in which he indicated, among other things, he would rather not see African-Americans at his team’s games.
The second involved the swift and severe response from rookie NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who suspended Sterling for life from any NBA game or activity, fined him $2.5 million and demanded that he sell his stake in the Clippers or face the combined force of the NBA’s other owners who would force him out.
First, let’s deal with Sterling himself. I have often thought that leadership is a privilege, not a right. In fact, we can only call ourselves leaders when we live up to the mantle of leadership. When we do, we are able to earn the trust and confidence of the people we lead. Once we do something to violate that trust and confidence, we lose our ability to lead.
As the owner of a team dominated by African-American players, in a league heavily supported by African-American fans, his hurtful comments served as a profound violation of the trust and confidence he may have enjoyed.
More importantly, as owner of a team involved in one of the most international, multicultural sports on the planet, Sterling demonstrated he was embarrassingly out of step with the people that adore his product.
We will never know what, if anything, Sterling would have done on his own to address the controversy because NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who just took over his post in February, reacted swiftly with the ban, the fine and a harsh condemnation of Sterling’s comments. Those actions left no doubt where he and the league stood on the matter.
What stands out most about Silver’s reaction is how quickly it came, and how his response stands in stark contrast to the response by his predecessor, David Stern. You see, this is not the first time Sterling was the subject of racism allegations.
In fact, Sterling was the subject of a 2009 discrimination lawsuit brought by former Clipper’s general manager Elgin Baylor, a NBA champion and member of the league’s hall of fame. In his suit, the highly respected Baylor recounts how Sterling demeaned his African-American players with a management style that evoked a “Southern plantation-type structure.”
Despite having full knowledge of Baylor’s suit, former commissioner Stern and the other NBA owners failed to act. In the narrative of the Sterling affair, this now stands out as a remarkable abdication of the owners’ leadership obligations.
Silver was not about to make the same mistakes as his predecessor. Of course, he was aided in his decision by the viral exposure of the Sterling tape, a reality that gave him much less time to figure out a plan of action.
It also bears mentioning that in the wake of these latest revelations about Sterling’s attitudes towards African-Americans, NBA players on the Clippers and other teams had considered boycotting playoff games if the league did not act. That was a development that also required immediate action.
Still, faced with all this, Silver acted decisively and surprised many of his critics. He was clear in his decision which denounced Sterling’s abhorrent actions. Great leaders call out bad leadership and that’s why in the end, Silver demonstrated the courage of a true leader.
Inspired by Silver’s actions, this week’s Gut Check question asks: Do you have the courage to call out and act on bad leadership?
Follow me @VinceMolinaro