by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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“To kneel or not to kneel; that is the question…” is the way that Shakespeare would probably rewrite his famous line from Hamlet to fit today’s society. All media outlets are enveloped by the story of a growing number of NFL players choosing to forego the tradition of standing for the National Anthem. It is a hot-button topic for Americans everywhere as lines are drawn as to whether you support this action or not. While I have no interest in weighing in on that debate in this blog, I have been fascinated by the leadership lessons that exist in the process.
Colin Kaepernick, who at the time was the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, was the epicenter of this entire movement, having sat down during the National Anthem during a preseason game last season. What began as a single man’s choice noting equality and equity has since ballooned into a convoluted scheme of individuals frantically moving in all directions. Some players are sitting, some are kneeling, some are standing, some are linking arms, and some simply don’t know what to do. Teams are taking all sorts of measures, some well thought out, others loosely thrown together at the last minute. At this point, the entire story is a dizzying array of movements that lack alignment and focus, but are wrought with barbs being thrown out, ultimatums being stated, and sides being drawn.
There is no denying that leadership, and in reality the lack of effective leadership, has been instrumental in putting this process where it is today. So I thought it would be interesting to look at leadership lessons that can be learned from this process:
Lacking a Singular Focused Mission: Ask 100 people on the street corner what the ‘Take the Knee’ movement is all about, and most likely you will come out with a slew of answers that would mimic the hundreds of options on a fast-food restaurant’s menu board. Some would say it is about equity and equality, others about race and ethnicity, others about civil rights, others about police brutality, others about military, and others about the President’s recent condemning words. While many of these items are in fact inter-connected, the ‘why’ has not been clearly established for this movement. Change processes, such as this one, need a singular focus, a common mission that everyone can rally around. The problem is that a person might not agree with players kneeling for the anthem, but might be totally against Trump’s words about the players. So then what do they do? Do they kneel or not kneel? If they kneel, what are they kneeling for? If they stand for the anthem, are they supporting the President or simply standing in respect for the military and the country? To be truly effective leaders, we must establish a focused and clearly communicated mission for a movement, something that has clearly not been done in this situation.
Technical Fixes for Adaptive Problems: Ron Heifetz, a noted leadership expert from Harvard University, theorizes that leaders face both technical and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are ones that can be easily remedied through directives and steps of action (e.g., the power goes out and we have to get the lights turned back on). For Heifetz, adaptive challenges are big and messy problems (e.g., racial discrimination, poorly performing schools, homelessness) that cannot be solved through technical fixes. They take innovative thinking and shifts in the culture of the organization or society. One of the biggest problems in leadership is when leaders try to apply technical fixes to big adaptive problems. Technical fixes to these adaptive problems (e.g., affirmative action policies, tents for the homeless) simply do not work because they cannot possibly get at the deeper, societal issues behind the challenges. While the Taking the Knee movement looks to be an NFL problem, it is instead a deeper, societal issue involving race relations, equity, and civil rights. This huge adaptive issue (one that this country has been struggling with for many generations) cannot be fixed through technical solutions. So when some people call for the NFL to set a mandate that all players have to stand for the anthem or when President Trump calls for the firing of players who kneel, these technical fixes only solve the immediate kneeling issue, but do not impact the larger underlying challenge around equality and rights.
No Charismatic Voice to Motivate Others: When you think of all of the movements that have truly been successful throughout the history of the world, you can always connect them to a singular leader who led either through voice or example. Think Ghandi, Mandela, MLK Jr., Reagan, etc. At the tip of the movement is the voice that lets the group know where everyone is heading. These leaders share the vision for change, set the tone for actions, and exemplify what it means to be a part of the movement. Every movement needs this type of leader to set the course and motivate others so that the movement gains momentum. The Taking the Knee movement has lacked that singular voice and example which has caused it at times to sputter. A few spatterings of actions and words have been provided over the last year from various players, but there is nothing that is unifying these actions and words. Kaepernick would have been the natural selection for the leader, an incredibly skilled football player who others looked up to. But as the year moved forward after his initial act, he sank out of the limelight. People called for him to step up to the mic and let everyone know what should be happening next, but he faded from the limelight save for a series of texts aimed wildly in multiple directions. When he did not take up the leadership mantle, a vacuum of leadership was left, which left the movement rudderless… that is until President Trump stepped to the mic.
President Trump’s words, and later his tweets, instantly galvanized the movement but not in the way he expected. His actions awoke the movement from its slumber, and a giant arose in its wake. Last Sunday marked the largest number of players, coaches, owners, employees, etc. who stood together in opposition. Suddenly the movement had a new direction, a common mission, but it was not exactly what it had originally started as. It was now about opposing the President, his condemning and offensive words, and his actions towards this group. It was about showing him that players were not who he said they were. It was about showing the world that they would stand up, or in this case kneel, against what they felt was wrong. But President Trump’s remarks left thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, in its wake. No one clearly knew what side they were on. Hence, if you are for standing for the anthem, but against President Trump’s words and actions, what are you to do? And for those who simply just want to watch football for entertainment and a way to escape the doldrums of life, I guess you are simply out of luck.
The entire Taking the Knee situation has been wrought with a lack of effective leadership on all sides of the issue. It is why so many are displaced with their emotions and thoughts, unable to decide where they stand on this issue. This is not how movements gain momentum. This is not how change occurs. True leadership is needed, not rhetoric, not grandstanding, but truly effective, clear, and motivating leadership is needed. Thus far, this has been impossible to find in this avalanche of wild emotions and unchained actions. It will be interesting to follow this movement and more particularly the role that leaders play in it as it unfolds. I don’t know about you, but for me, as a leader, I can learn so much about how not to lead a change process.