Great leaders figure out how to do the right thing the right way

I remember very clearly watching Coach John Wooden coach basketball when I was 8 years old. I was fascinated as he became celebrated, and then legendary, for coaching UCLA to a record 87-game winning streak and a string of national championships. I also respected that he was well known for his distinctive integrity.

It is lesser known that Coach Wooden led the Indiana State Teachers College Sycamores to the 1947 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics post-season national tournament. However, the NAIA prohibited black players from participating. Clarence Walker, a Sycamore teammate, was black. Coach Wooden would not allow the NAIA to erase Clarence’s hard work while the rest of the team claimed glory without him. Coach Wooden declined the offer, citing a lesson his father taught him at a young age, “you’re just as good as anybody else.”

The following year, the Sycamores claimed national renown for Wooden’s innovative passing-based playing strategy. The NAIA again invited the Sycamores to the tournament, but they required a condition. Clarence could play, but, as the invitation stated, “[Clarence] must not be seen publicly with the team… He must not attend publicity functions with the Sycamores.” Coach Wooden rejected the proposal. Why allow Clarence to come if he would be denied the glory the rest of the team would share?

Soon after, while many “advisors” sought out Coach Wooden to weigh in, the NAACP encouraged Coach Wooden to reconsider; “If Clarence agrees to the impositions, he will become the first black player to ever play in a national college basketball tournament.” Coach Wooden passed the choice to Clarence.

Clarence chose to break the barrier for all black athletes.

Indiana State went all the way to the tournament finals. And Coach Wooden was on the way to establishing his standard for doing the right thing the right way.

Business never stops moving. New projects constantly emerge over the horizon, whether from new clients with fresh opportunities or existing clients seeking to pursue new challenges. It is easy to get caught up in the storm and figuring out the next steps as they appear. But it is essential to take a step back and carefully examine, what is your company doing? Is your company doing the right thing? And is your company doing it the right way?

What is the right thing?

How can we determine what is right for our organization? Everyone is responsible for their own decisions and accountable to his or her own conscience. As leaders, we rely on principles to guide careful thinking as we evaluate tough choices. Values also help shine light on what is right. Actions that align with core values, granted the value is good, are more likely right. That is not to say any choice that aligns with one’s values, by definition, is the right course of action, but this may provide a guideline in many circumstances. Most individuals will readily identify their own values. We constantly observe people making decisions out of line with their values and proceeding to feel guilt. Yet how does this play out for a team or organization?

First, evaluate.

Companies can pursue the right thing without venturing into philosophical discussions. The first step involves evaluating the company’s mission. Great companies derive their values from their mission. It requires spending significant time considering what values are essential to that mission and its integrity. Leadership also gains confidence as it becomes clear that the organization’s direction is consistent with its values.

When companies identify their values and order their organizational structure, culture, processes, and actions accordingly, the result is a standard of excellence. Leaders can encourage their employees to carry out the mission the right way by instilling incentives that promote certain behaviors and standards. Similarly, culture effectively shapes employees’ conduct. As a leader, when you think about how your employees act and work, are they comfortable being open and honest? Are they enthusiastically collaborative or is there a sense of competition or fear? Referring to the latter, Gallup has shown that ethical concerns are more likely to pass unreported, risking a public relations crisis, legal trouble, or worse. In addition, related to the topic of fear, Gallup also found that micromanaging leads to negative performance. Ultimately, organizational structure and culture encourage respective actions. When observing employees, do their actions align with the values of the company? More importantly, do yours? As explained in our previous article, leaders set the standard of excellence.

Other considerations may include that leaders ask about a practice, “Is it wise?” In doing so, we may need to consider what that would look like (i.e., showing patience, not rushing). Similarly, will it help us to endure? Doing the right thing builds energy to last longer, establishes strong habits as a team, and sets a clear direction in which we can be confident. And it will show strong commitment to the worth or value of others. Coach Wooden gave a clear example on that point by standing by Clarence.

Does your company value justice? Achievement? Honesty? Recognition? Control or Autonomy? Harmony? Altruism? If company leadership claims it believes certain values are essential to its mission, then it must ensure that it holds true to those values. And is the leadership representative of the employees working at the company? If a company values creativity, does it allow for new approaches or ideas that may not work out? If a company values honesty, then the company culture will greatly impact how team members interact with each other. Moreover, the leader’s conduct can say a lot about these facets of company culture. To align actions with values, the organizational structure and company culture must be consistent with those values.

In my opinion, trust is a central value. Trust rests at the center of working relationships, enabling teams to work efficiently and cooperatively. Ralph J. Roberts, the founder and former chairman of Comcast Corporation, now Comcast NBCUniversal, and a great man for whom I was blessed to serve, showed the benefit of doing the right thing the right way, with hardly a word.

At Mr. Roberts’ memorial service, Coach Vermeil, former coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and former neighbor of Mr. Roberts, gave a eulogy and shared with us a story from the afternoon in the mid-1990s, when Comcast’s corporate office burned to the ground. That afternoon, Coach Vermeil called to say he was so sorry to hear the news, and he imagined that Mr. Roberts was too busy for dinner. But Mr. Roberts had a wonderful habit of eating dinner at home every evening, and the Vermeils were supposed to join the Roberts that particular evening. Instead, Mr. Roberts replied, “Oh no! come on over. Brian and everyone at the company, they’re all doing their jobs; they have it covered. If they need me, they’ll call me.”  Let us not miss this lesson: Mr. Roberts trusted his team, even when the building burned to the ground. And I know he found many ways to trust me along the way. For me, this wonderful attribute was one of his many signature ways of leading the right way. When crises arise, it does not mean we cannot trust our team. It means we have to trust our team.

Sometimes, companies find themselves in situations in which there is no clear right thing. Judgement comes into play here. What values does the company weigh more heavily than others? Resist the easy choice for a more clearly thought-out, strategic choice that will benefit the company in the longer term. And be open with each team about such decisions. The better they understand the leadership’s reasoning behind controversial decisions, the more open they may be to continuing with confidence.

Lessons Learned

Clarence caught many lessons from Coach Wooden, both unspoken and taught. As conveyed in a speech by Clarence’s son, Coach Wooden changed his thinking in years ahead. In fact, after reading many of the stories from his assistant coaches and players, including All-Americans Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Mike Warren, and Bill Walton, it is unmistakable that Coach Wooden’s integrity and trust earned their respect, enabled them to come together as a team, and built relationships that would last for decades afterward. Companies need not be different. Great leaders find the right way to make their organizations a team.

Finding the right way is challenging even in the best of times. We all face uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and division that tempts us to pull apart at the seams. We need leaders in our organizations. We will need expectant views for the times ahead. And we will need to learn new ways to work together to view one another differently and take on challenges. And this may need to mature while we are tested in personal or moral challenges, and crises of all sorts. Finding the right path is not impossible. The new opportunities and chances to exceed the best goals and desires in spite of those challenges, are all in front of us. May we learn to understand and trust one another. And may we find excellence in pursuit of the right way.