Learning What Not to Do From the Leadership of the Washington Redskins

Posted 10.19.2009

There’s an old, old saying that, “A fish rots from the head down.”  It dates in English from at least 1674 and has probably hung around all these years because it’s true.  The Washington Redskins are one of the latest examples of the truth of this aphorism.

Redskins1 Since the NFL season began, I’ve thought of writing a post on what can be learned about how not to lead an organization from analyzing the Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder.  After Sunday’s 14 – 6 loss to the previously winless Kansas City Chiefs that included a safety in the closing minutes, the time finally seems right.  After all, the Redskins have lost to the 1 and 22 Detroit Lions and haven’t beaten a team this year with a winning record.  As the Washington Post has reported, the team sues its fans who have fallen on hard times and can’t honor their ticket contracts.  They have one of the most bloated payrolls in the NFL and week by week, publicly humiliate their head coach Jim Zorn (a classic example of what I refer to as an NGB – “nice guy, but…”) by removing one more aspect of his duties.  (This week it was play calling.)

Seriously, if we can’t learn something about how not to lead an organization from watching Dan Snyder then it’s probably time to move onto another topic.  What are his secrets for leading a rotten organization?  Here are a few that catch my attention:

Live in the past:  The Redskins haven’t won a Super Bowl since  1992 and have made the playoffs only three times in the 10 years that Snyder has owned the team.  And yet, they act as if they’re perennial contenders for the Super Bowl.  The first step in dealing with reality is to live in it.

Manage things you don’t know about:  By all accounts, Snyder has surrounded himself with front office personnel who are not up to the job of managing the football side of an NFL franchise.  The weak staff gives Snyder the latitude to become personally involved in football decisions that he doesn’t have the experience to make.

Squeeze your customers until they bleed:  The Redskins charge a premium price for an inferior product.  They have long term fans whose loyalty and passion for the team dates back longer than the owner has been alive.  When some of those fans fell on hard times and couldn’t honor their long term ticket contracts, the Redskins sued them and bankrupted them.  This is from a team who claims to have the longest waiting list for season tickets of any franchise in the NFL.

Chase after shiny objects:  One thing Redskins fans have come to count on is that the off season will bring a high priced player acquisition that will be a “game changer”.  This year, it was a $100 million contract for tackle Albert Haynesworth.  In previous years it was Deion Sanders or Bruce Smith or somebody else.  Heck, even bringing back the great Joe Gibbs was part of this pattern.  The acquisitions don’t pay off because there is no long term system or plan in place around which the entire team can gel.

Offend and insult people’s intelligence:  As society has changed, there has been more and more discomfort and offense taken with the very name, Redskins.  As many commentators have pointed out, it’s hard to come up with a team in another sport that is named after an offensive label for an entire ethnic group.  It’s gotten to the point where the U.S. Supreme Court may agree to hear a suit from six Native American tribes on the team name. In the face of such criticism, Snyder talks about the honor and tradition of the Redskins. Please. Could it possibly be about the money wrapped up in the trademark?

Hire and fire rapidly:  How many head coaches has the team had since Snyder took over?  Let’s see if I can name them all.  Norv, Robiskie (Don’t remember him? Look it up.), Schottenheimer, Spurrier, Gibbs, Zorn.  That’s six head coaches in 10 years.  How in the world can you build an organization when there is constant churn in the top operational job?

Embarrass your key people in public:  Let’s say you’re a young quarterback with some potential.  You’ve shown some promise at the end of the previous season and are learning.  And then in the offseason, your owner and EVP of football operations start publicly wooing number one QB draft picks and some veteran QB’s without even talking with you about what they’re thinking.  Would you feel supported as a leader of your team?  Would you feel confident in your position?  Would you feel wanted?  No, I didn’t think so.  That’s what it’s been like for Washington QB Jason Campbell this year.   Let’s not even get started on how his head coach has been treated.

Accept no accountability:  The silence from Dan Snyder and his EVP of football operations Vinny Cerrato as the team has gotten worse and worse has been deafening.  The two of them are the only constants over the 10 years of Washington’s decline.  One might think they have some accountable role in the situation.

Make your organization an extension of your own ego:  This is what it probably all comes down to.  I remember when I was in my last corporate job, it looked like our parent company was probably going to be acquired.  A bunch of us on the senior team were sitting around talking about what was next and one of my colleagues who had been around the block a few times said to us, “Remember, whoever buys us is going to be thinking, ‘If you guys are so smart, how come we bought you?’”  That’s it in a nutshell with Dan Snyder.  If all of you are so smart, how come I own the team?  Until he gets his ego out of the way, there’s no hope for the long suffering fans.

OK, that’s my take.  What’s yours?  If you follow the NFL, what have I gotten right or wrong here?  What are some of the leadership lessons you’ve learned along the way by watching someone else and saying, “Wow, I’m never going to do that?”