What do Adam Silver, Bud Selig and Gary Bettman have in common with Roger Goodell? Each is at the top of their game as head of a major sports organization (NBA, MBL, NHL, and NFL) and each is vulnerable because they can’t know everything that goes on in it.

Flying at high altitudes, leaders gain perspective of one type and lose it in another. More challenging is the tendency for people who surround a leader to acquiesce or disagree so politely as to be overlooked. It isn’t easy to resist groupthink or the habits of ones own thinking, information gathering and decision-making.

Recent events, involving professional football players, have brought rightful attention to the issue of domestic violence and put Mr. Goodell on the spot. While the manifest issue is domestic violence, which deserves every ounce of forthrightness we can muster, questions about organizational culture must be asked. Cultures are so powerful they may distort otherwise good judgment, disincline people to act as they believe they should and pressure people to conform, defend, or disguise actions that should be dealt with swiftly and without equivocation.

The upside? Culture can be shaped to promote pro-social behavior, civility, and integrity as well. A healthy organizational culture is more likely to be associated with superior results (financial and other), innovation and customer satisfaction. Organizational culture develops, either by intention or evolution. Owners and stakeholders expect leaders to be intentional about it, not passive and certainly not apologetic when the culture is destructive. It cannot be a soft thing relegated to Human Resources.

Mr. Goodell, whether you think about the culture of the NLF or not, as the leader, it starts with you. Don’t accept excuses and don’t make any yourself. You, and every leader should have the courage to ask:

  1. Are my expectations about behavior clear?
  2. Am I an example of what I expect from others?
  3. Do we swiftly deal with behaviors contrary to what we say we value?
  4. Is absence of scandal an indication of organizational health?
  5. How do I know if our organization has pushed aside or hidden matters that would embarrass us but have failed to do anything truly constructive?
  6. How do I handle people who hide things from me or other leaders because they are unpleasant or inconvenient?

A client with whom I worked for several years had the best definition I’ve ever heard about culture. He said, “it’s important because it is what will lead people to do the right thing when no one is looking.” Well said.

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