The Best Way to Implode Your Leadership

Donald Miller

A couple weeks ago Mike Leach, the head coach of Washington State’s football team was in hot water again. His star wide receiver left the team claiming that Leach and his staff used tactics of humiliation and intimidation to gain control of their players. This wasn’t the first complaint against Leach. Only a few years ago he was fired from Texas Tech for allegedly locking a player in a closet. In leaving Texas Tech, Leach simply called that player a wimp. Leach routinely and publicly throws his nineteen and twenty-year old players under the bus. So much so that sometimes it’s baffling.

It’s doubtful coach Leach will last long at Washington State. Both the school and the PAC12 are investigating his tactics now. Leach was already determined guilty of insubordination by Texas Tech and fired. He is now suing the school.

When the new allegations at Washington State were brought up at a recent press conference, Coach Leach refused to address them but issued a threat to the reporter who asked the question, saying he wouldn’t like where that road goes if he keeps bringing it up. Who knows whether Leach is guilty again. We don’t know. But we do know, unlike most football coaches, there’s something about him that causes massive disruptions and massive PR problems wherever he goes. He’s also proven he believes he’s right and other people are wrong, over and over again. He can’t seem to get people to see the world his way.

While it’s true a person should be innocent until proven guilty, this is only true for our court system. People in general make snap judgments which is their right. Texas Tech decided it couldn’t afford to have a leader who locks kids in closets and berates players. Washington State will have to make a similar decision. One thing that’s widely agreed upon is that Mike Leach doesn’t bring a sense of honor or character to the schools that hire him. It’s doubtful another prominently known school will.

But Coach Leach brings up another issue I think is important for people of influence. And it’s this:

If you have to intimidate in order to gain control, the people you’re leading don’t respect you.

*Photo by Victor, Creative Commons
Certainly there are times we have to be tough and decisive. We may even have to lay down the law. But calling members of our team (read coworkers, congregations, sons and daughters) cowards or wimps is the stuff of weak leadership. It’s a personality problem.

People who attempt to emasculate others are afraid to let anybody around them become strong. They need to be surrounded by people who are weaker than they are in order to feel safe. That’s why some leaders only surround themselves by yes men or yes women.

The truth is, the tactic works. If you have complete control of the people around you, you can accomplish a great deal. But there’s a ceiling. Sooner or later, the same leader will create enemies and those enemies seek justice. Mike Leach will likely lose yet another job for his tactics. And not only this, but intimidating leaders are not often told about their blind spots. We often wonder how powerful leaders could make such stupid decisions, but the sad reality is there was nobody around them willing to point out their mistakes. They’d pushed away anybody willing to question them.

There are too many exceptions to list. Steve Jobs could be considered an exception, but truthfully he passed before the age when most controlling personalities begin to pay for their sins. Nevertheless, his accomplishments were obvious and many. Who really knows whether he was satisfied with his impact on the world, but everybody else was.

Many psychologists would say controlling and intimidating people are often driven by fear. If anybody gets power, they think, they’ll use it against them. Sadly, they often fulfill their own fears. When they’ve insulted and belittled enough people those people rise up against them justifying the leaders own paranoia.

Want to lead a powerful team? Empower them. Don’t emasculate them. Build them up rather than tear them down. If they challenge your authority, help them launch their own organization or just explain to them the chain of command. But don’t tear them down. It’ll backfire.

Of course it is possible that Mike Leach is a victim. It could be that he is demonized by the press and his players. His lawsuits against ESPN and Texas Tech may be appropriate. But what we do know is he is a man who insists on doing it his way. And he’s paying for that. Other leaders who are more diplomatic win championships. Leach files law suits. Either way, it’s doubtful he’ll be leading nationally recognized teams for much longer. Right or wrong, his style of leadership puts the wrong kind of spotlight on the institutions that hire him to humbly bring nobility to what they, not him, have created. Leach doesn’t see it that way. If you don’t agree with him, he’ll sue you. Hire him at your own risk.

Many leaders are surprised when they start building their team members up how loyal and grateful those team members become. There are very tough coaches coaching in the NCAA today. Some of them are widely considered mean. But the accusations are different. Locking a player in a shed is different than making an example out of them. A wise coach knows the difference between what’s best for the team and what’s best for their ego.

When a leader decides to make the people around them better, regardless of whether it benefits them personally or not, what they create are more great leaders. Attempts to intimidate may get a paranoid leader temporary security, but building people up creates better people, better organizations and better societies.

Don’t believe me? Lock one of your teammates in a closet for a day and see where it gets you. Can you get away with that?

Those who disagree with my assessment of Mike Leach’s leadership may have their reasons, but I doubt they’d be willing to use his tactics. Are you willing to lock a teammate, family member or staff member in a closet for a day? Would those around you be upset if you used such tactics. Is working with nineteen-year-old football players different? And if so, then why? Can you teach manhood without emasculation?

I think it was dumb of WSU to hire Leach. I hope they learn from their mistakes. And I hope Leach does too.

-Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He helps people live a better story at creatingyourlifeplan.com and grow their business at storybrand.com. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.