It’s hard to be a fan of an executive in the same way we look at top performers like Brian Williams, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
But once in a while an instructive juxtaposition of events illustrates for us some important issues of high-level leadership.
This week NBC news anchor Brian Williams is on a very hot seat as NBC investigates allegations that Williams falsely lionized himself in his reports on events during his visits to battlefronts. There is a chorus of demands that he resign.
Williams anchors the NBC Nightly News, the top-rated evening news program on American television.
Last week, it was Brady and Belichick of the New England Patriots being boiled in widespread condemnation, accused as cheaters seeking unfair advantage in alleged deflation of footballs. Even Brady’s idol, San Francisco Hall of Famer Joe Montana, jumped on.
While the public figures have been getting a lot of attention in both situations, it is worthwhile for us project managers to consider the history and behavior of their employers. In our project work, the proper functioning of the senior manager relationship is vital to success.
What do we know about that in the NBC and Patriots situations?
First, the Patriots.
Robert Kraft bought the team in 1996, and had unhappy experiences with two head coaches before he brought Belichick in for the 2000 season. Brady was a sixth-round pick by Belichick in the draft that year, and became the starting quarterback early in the 2001 season.
Belichick and Brady won their first Super Bowl right away, and their fourth last week.
It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride. Belichick generally is a grim, fanatical dictator. Brady is handsome, rich and – by all accounts – unbelievably disciplined. The two of them are intensely beloved by New England football fans. We are told the rest of the country hates the Patriots with equal fervor.
Kraft himself is somewhat unusual in his public prominence, and is often visible in the media.
He is widely seen as extremely influential in the high councils of the National Football League. His organization financed a new stadium that is the centerpiece of a huge entertainment and commercial mall in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
The general negativity toward the Patriots was immeasurably heightened in 2007 when the team was punished for videotaping defensive signals being sent from the bench of the New York Jets. Belichick personally paid a $500,000 fine. The team was fined $250,000 and lost a first-round draft pick.
So critics were instantly disposed to believe the Patriots were tampering with footballs in a game this season against the Indianapolis Colts, after the Colts asked the league to investigate. As one Indianapolis columnist wrote, “Cheaters cheat.”
The league waited a few days, then confirmed it was investigating. At this writing, the probe continues, still without further word. But additional information, apparently credible, has surfaced.
The entire matter is now largely seen as having been based on falsehoods and assumptions – but that is not the point here.
Nor is the point what Belichick and Brady did, which is to hold two press conferences each. In both, Brady professed ignorance as to what happens to balls before and during any game, other than the allowable breaking-in that he does.
Belichick, in his first appearance, reported that he knew considerably less than Brady, having had nothing to do with footballs in his 40-some years in the industry.
There was widespread disbelief in much of the country.
Then two things happened. One was that Belichick took a couple of days off from preparation for the imminent Super Bowl to do extensive experimentation with football inflation in various circumstances. In a second press conference, he reported that noticeable pressure changes indeed take place without human manipulation.
The other, perhaps determinative, event bears directly on the point of this commentary.
It was two days after Belichick’s second press conference and at the start of Super Bowl week when Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, arrived in Arizona. He was loaded for bear.
Kraft called his own press conference. He added no new information, but he unequivocally came out for Belichick and Brady. He placed his own considerable prestige behind them, and blasted the National Football League for allowing the situation to drag along, fueled by leaks, rumors and speculation.
He demanded an NFL apology to Belichick and Brady, in his certainty that the flap would be dissolved by the truth. He said that his close private relationships with the two often had their sharp edges, but he totally endorsed their integrity.
As public attention shifted more to the upcoming game, the negativity seemed to thin somewhat. Then the Patriots won what some say was the most exciting Super Bowl game in the event’s 49-year history.
The matter of Williams and NBC was entirely different, although the Nightly News – like the Patriots -- has consistently been at the top of its field.
The most glaring differences are in the ongoing conduct of Brian Williams and of the senior management of NBC, and in what has happened since the accusations against Williams could no longer be ignored.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that NBC News President Deborah Turness had initiated an investigation after Williams publicly apologized for falsely saying on the air that he was in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003.
Over that decade, the story as told by Williams, morphed in successive steps away from the truth. Apparently, Williams actually had showed up some time after a helicopter – not his – was hit.
The AP reported that suspicions have also been raised about Williams’ reports from Hurricane Katrina that he saw a body float by his hotel. Others on the scene said the body sighting was blocks away, and involved people other than Williams.
In short, the claim is that a third-person story became a first-person account centered on Williams himself.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote Friday, “NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. . . But the caustic media big shots who once roamed the land were gone, and ‘there was no one around to pull his chain when he got too over-the-top,’ as one NBC News reporter put it.”
There are other reports that Williams’ self-aggrandizement has been the butt of ridicule in the news division for some time.
“With no pushback from the brass at NBC, Williams has spent years fervently “courting celebrity’,” Dowd wrote in quoting The Hollywood Reporter.
Another difference in the NBC case is that Tom Brokaw, Williams’ well respected predecessor as Nightly News anchor, declined to join the chorus – unlike Joe Montana in the case of Tom Brady.
The AP reported that Brokaw had denied a report that he has suggested Williams be dismissed. “Brian’s future will be decided by him and the executives of NBC News,” Brokaw said.
Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots and Deborah Turness of NBC News. Both in powerful positions in media environments.
One executive is intimately knowledgeable about what’s going on, and exercises strong influence in the organization. He is supremely confident in proclaiming a total endorsement of his key employees.
The other executive apparently has been isolated from the culture surrounding her most important asset. She has been either unaware of this major flaw in Williams’ professional make-up, or unwilling to accept responsibility for doing anything about it. From all reports, the anchor was essentially free of management oversight.
Hey, the guy has been on the air doing this stuff for a decade . . . and now you’re summoning up an investigation about it?
In regard to Robert Kraft: He is not an uncritical acolyte of Belichick or any other head coach. He didn’t become a successful business executive without developing some pretty strong convictions.
Early in his tenure with the Patriots, he battled with the feisty Bill Parcells, the head coach he inherited when he took over the franchise. Then he fired Pete Carroll, Parcells’ successor, after three years.
We can assume that he and Belichick (who himself had been fired a few years earlier by the Cleveland Browns) had some mature discussions about relationships as well as team management before they joined forces.
We project managers devote considerable thought and conversation to how we get along with the decision-makers in our sponsoring organizations. Or we don't.
Too often, I have detected a certain tone of dissatisfaction in my colleagues’ attitudes, colored with a sense of helplessness. Too many of us do the “yessir” thing. Too many of us suffer through distrust in such relationships.
My own conventional management career, spanning several decades, was often distorted by suspicion, lack of communication and great gulfs of unaddressed disagreement.
Today, I believe that project managers must be proactive in establishing and maintaining fully functional lines of communication and structures of collaboration with our superiors. Sure, it’s up to them to take the lead, but it’s up to us to make sure it happens no matter what they do.
This doesn’t always work out in my connections with the people I work for. When it doesn’t, the shortfall is an important risk factor, and the conduct of the work must take that into consideration. That’s my responsibility.
Kraft, Belichick and Brady seem to see it that way. Turness and Williams don’t appear to have done so. Pick your model.
Authority, Responsibility, Management