What the Goodell Presser Reveals About His (Terrible) Leadership Style


Friday’s press conference surrounding the League’s poor handling of domestic abuse is rife with examples of how not to lead an influential organization.

As a college leadership educator, I am charged with providing opportunities to students that are often very close in age to some of the newest members of the National Football League. I like to find examples in current events of how leadership should look- and how it shouldn’t look. In Friday’s press conference, I had an unfortunate chance to draw from Roger Goodell’s “performance” to address the latter. But through my own personal disappointment and occasional anger, I was able to distill a few things about the commissioner’s leadership style. As controversy continues to unfold, America now regretfully knows more of the man overseeing this process…and has reason to be concerned.

Apologies Count …

To the credit of Commissioner Goodell, he started strong. He apologized, an act that some in his position have not had the good sense to perform. “Over the past several weeks, we have all seen too much of the NFL doing wrong,” he said. “That starts with me. I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. I’m sorry for that. Now I will get it right.” His admission of responsibility, at least in one element of the mushrooming domestic violence crisis that shrouds his league, was admirable. If there is one element of this fiasco that should be shared, it is that. Be willing to say that you’re wrong.

… But They’re Simply Not Enough

The most certain statement that we as a viewing public got after ten days of silence was the fact that Roger Goodell has erred in judgment several times. That, we did not need to be told. What we did hope to hear was what was being done to fix it. Just as when our significant other makes a mistake, the sorry matters little until we know that the action will not be repeated. And NFL fans and onlookers didn’t get that this afternoon. The remainder of Goodell’s time on stage was dedicated to hemming and hawing about committee formation, getting the right people in the room, and vowing to have an investigation and committee set up by the Super Bowl (a process he would presumably have to oversee, thus preventing him from resigning until at least the end of the season?). But the 25 percent of women who fall victim to domestic abuse deserve to know that a powerful media outlet won’t stand for this behavior. And they shouldn’t have to wait until February for that knowledge. To make viewers wait, first for his presence and then again for a solution, is to fundamentally understand the urgency that this particular issue demands.

When Help Arrives, Will It Be Accepted?

Goodell alluded multiple times to committees that were being assembled, and individuals who were being brought on to consult on an effective way to handle these incidents. But when pressed for further information, Goodell had little to report. This is a problem. In the event that a true solution was being addressed, one of two things could have happened that could have quelled some of the frustration that followed this conference: (1) Goodell could have been briefed on some of the action being taken so he could speak in a more informed manner, or (2) he could have shared the podium with those informed enough to address these issues responsibly. It was made clear in prior press opportunities (namely, the decision to interview Janay Palmer Rice alongside her abuser) that Goodell doesn’t have the expertise to independently address this issue. But in denying those who do have the ability to effectively address these problems a portion of the spotlight, he casts significant doubt over his ability to accept the help that the league so desperately needs. And in blatantly ignoring calls to resign, he risks the credibility of any solutions that are put forth.

In Any Case, He’s Lost the Room

Leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum; as important as the definition of Goodell’s style, is the manner in which those he leads receive him. Almost as compelling as the oblivion with which Goodell regards his reception as the face of the organization, is the vitriol with which he was greeted by current and former NFL players alike. Among the frustrations shared via social media from their ranks were cries of pointlessness, insincerity, and ire over Goodell’s apparent belief that he is above the rules set forth by his own league:

As pressure and anger mounts over the continued inconclusive response of this league, Goodell took an opportunity to take a clear stance on a hot-button issue in society, and bungled it mightily. ESPN’s Mark Schlereth remarked today “Great leadership creates a vision, and then takes action.” Friday’s performance indicates that Goodell’s vision is hazy, and his actions unsteady. His inability to define clear action or address the concerns of rightful critics has undoubtedly hurt the League more than it helped, and with that his public image as well. He may not resign, but his ability to lead is severely compromised.

Those seeking leadership roles in the future should learn well from the game tape on this outing … and then work from an entirely different playbook.

Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog (“The Dedicated Amateur“) and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I’S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.

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