Leadership Lessons from the Debacle at the University of Missouri

Usually I am smart enough to refrain from commenting on local issues, particularly those with so much inflammatory potential, but this particular incident is so ripe with leadership wrongs I just couldn’t remain silent. My only disclaimer is I realize this is my opinion and I hope to spark a conversation, not a monologue.

As you may know from reading my just released book, Reignite: How Everyday Companies Spark Next Stage Growth, I believe the principles of leadership and growth espoused apply to any organization—from corporations to churches to universities –and I gave examples of each in the book. Therefore the leadership insights shared are extremely relevant and could, if applied, have prevented many of the missteps taken at the University of Missouri this past week.

For those that haven’t seen the news stories, here is the situation in a nutshell. A student protest, led by a grad student, Jonathan Butler, claimed rampant racism at the University and demanded the ouster of President Tim Wolfe.  It became national news when 32 football players from the University of Missouri threatened to boycott practice and games until the hunger strike of Jonathan Butler was over. Coach Gary Pinkel threw his support behind his players. Hours later, President Wolfe and Chancellor Loftin resigned.

Subsequently, it was discovered that the issues for Jonathan Butler were more complex than race. His grievance letter, filed earlier, cited one instance of the “N” word, and issues with the defunding of insurance for grad students and a demand to reinstate Planned Parenthood on Campus. Race, however, was the fuel that fanned the flames, drawing a critical mass of participants and hyper media attention. Further, Mr. Butler, claiming to suffer oppression at the hands of white privilege is now reported to be a member of a prominent Omaha family. His father is Eric L. Butler, executive vice president for sales and marketing for the Union Pacific Railroad whose 2014 compensation was $8.4 million, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There is now egg on the face of every administrative official with responsibility for the educational system from the governor on down. Following are the fundamental leadership principles that could have prevented this fiasco. We would all be wise to learn them as we never know when it will be our turn to be in the hot seat.

So let’s look at the lessons:

  1. Perception IS Reality: As in any public “marketplace”, perception is what is understood to be true and is all that is needed to guide behavior. In this case, there was a perception that the University of Missouri was racist and radical change was needed NOW. While the truth is still emerging, the initial circumstances didn’t pass the “smell” test. Where were the specifics that documented the severe problem reported? A few incidents were mentioned which now have proven to be fabricated. Are there incidents of racism? Undoubtedly. There is student bullying on every campus for many reasons and I am sure MU is no exception. But it is likely no worse at MU than other campuses. That said, given the explosive state of race relations nationally and in Missouri specifically due to other recent events, should the campus administration have acted more boldly and more visibly in response to accusations? Undoubtedly. Swift, visible and decisive action were needed to assure that all students knew that racism wouldn’t/won’t be tolerated and if it was found to be systemic, would be a priority to eliminate. The leaders needed to address the perception directly and promptly; it was very real to those who believed it.
  2. The Truth Shall Set You Free: The next course of action is discovering the facts. It is hard to “solve” rumors; if a leader is going to solve problems, the truth must be understood. That truth meant identifying who Jonathan Butler really was, what motivated him, talking to students like the leader of the student alliance to hear grievances, holding open forums like Town Halls to gather specific information from all parties, auditing certain practices and policies and reviewing the results publicly. And this should have been done quickly—not over months but days. Decisions made based on antidotal information are rarely effective. If Mr. Wolfe performed any of these activities it wasn’t reported. The Board of Curators acted swiftly –once the football team got involved– to encourage Mr. Wolfe’s resignation without doing their homework. The leadership failed its constituents—the student body as a whole is suffering and feeling threatened, other professionals are resigning for the inability to do their jobs (not the ones in the video with the journalist), the football team has a black eye and the alumni are frustrated and discouraged—all because leadership acted before learning.
  3. Do you Think or Do you Know: Let’s talk about the football program and the gaffe committed by Gary Pinkel. A group of highly upset young men wanted to take a stand for something they believed in. Understandable. Yet clearly these young men didn’t have all the facts. Is it not the job of the team leader, someone who leads these young people on and off the field in this turbulent and developmental stage of their life, to help them make good decisions? By standing with this group of players, declaring that the “whole team” stood together, Coach Pinkel was guilty of acting on what the players THOUGHT and no one did their homework to be sure they KNEW exactly what the circumstances were before they acted in a way that could and probably has caused irreparable harm to people’s careers, a university reputation and to the pride of alumni who support the organization financially. Further, by his actions he threw his own leadership under the bus. How can those actions be acceptable for any adult with whom we entrust the development of young men? He didn’t teach in that moment, he failed his players, he caved. In my opinion, Gary Pinkel is no longer the leader of anything. By removing him, the University can 1) demonstrate their commitment to having strong leaders in all leadership positions at the University, 2) reinforce that they can’t be “bought” (by football money or any other non-academic influence) 3) start their leadership team anew with a fresh untainted slate of players. Fortunately for Mizzou the decision is not complicated by having a top-ranked team. In fact, sports talk radio pundits are saying Pinkel will slowly slide into oblivion as he is crippled on the recruiting front, and may no longer have the support of the fans or the administration. The other benefit of releasing Pinkel is it sends the message that the athletes (and the money those programs generate) cannot govern the organization. While I understand the economics as well as anyone, the one eye closed approach to allowing collegiate sports programs and the funding they generate to take over the education system has to stop. Now is as good of time as any. Missouri athletics are damaged goods right now. They will be hurt regardless of whether they keep Pinkel or not. It is time for the academic leaders to take a stand on what they believe in. Hopefully, the value of distinguishing between what is thought and what is known has been learned, albeit the hard way.
  4. Whac A Mole Management Doesn’t Solve Problems: If the University of Missouri isn’t in the middle of the fiercest game of Whac-a-mole I have ever seen, I don’t know who is. One problem after another is arising and solutions are being flung around without regard to long term consequences. At this point the campus appears to be in total dysfunction due to extreme emotions and the disruption it causes. Leadership has not been re-established. The heightened visibility has attracted the crazies. It is time for leaders to step up and bring order out of chaos. Flinging mallets at problems popping up all over the place isn’t working. Rather, there is a need for examination of systemic issues, the overarching culture and the academic outcomes being produced. The best solutions are born of a holistic approach.

Where does it go from here? At one time, just exposing the fraud perpetrated on the campus by Jonathan Butler may have been enough to solve the problem. Now, too much has transpired to put the genie back in the bottle. It is time to regain peace by bringing the proper parties to the table for discussions and clarity. It is time for all students, their parents, and the academicians to insist that their leadership manage for the benefit of all stakeholders. It will not be easy because the problems have become significant—lack of trust, lack of understanding, lack of support. In the end, not everyone will like the solutions. As a democracy, I hope that the solutions are just and fair, accomplish the overarching educational objective of the organization, and don’t violate any one person’s rights in the process. A democracy is not about everyone being equally happy with the solution but it is about your opportunity to be heard. I think many of us will be watching closely to see how Missouri climbs out of this hole—and are hopeful that they will understand the critical impact those decisions will have not just on their campus but across American higher education. It is time for a true leader to step up.

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Margaret’s book, Reignite: How Everyday Companies Can Spark Next Stage Growth, is available on Amazon http://amzn.com/1941870333. Bulk orders are also available; contact info@breakthroughmaster.com.

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