Joe Philbin And Richie Incognito: Lessons In Leadership

The following post originally appeared on Forbes | Nov 10th, 2013

Things are getting serious in Miami. David Cornwell – the high-profile “go-to” man for professional athletes, including the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Braun and A-Rod – has been retained by Jonathan Martin to field the tidal wave of backlash that has followed his walkout on October 30th. Cornwell is famously successful in the sports world, and being that one of his very few weaknesses is an inability to slow time, that he is representing Martin with such a busy schedule is quite telling – a storm is on the horizon.  Despite all of the media Martin and Incognito have commanded as of late, if Joe Philbin wasn’t losing sleep, he is now…

What, over a week ago, was seemingly just an annoyance – a player walking off due to friction – has become the poster child for one of the touchiest subjects in America: bullying. And while the verdict is still out as to whether this was bullying or harassment or some weird version of player management, one thing is for sure, the Miami franchise is suffering as a result. With the NFL probing into the scandal, recent interviews have shown the Dolphins to be circling the wagons and getting their stories in line; certainly, there are two sides to this one. With that being said, let’s agree on one thing: a 6’5”, 320 lb., Stanford-educated, top of the food chain football player doesn’t walk away from $5M and a legacy franchise like the Dolphins because of a little bullying. There is more to this tale, of that, I am sure. For the fans, hopefully the NFL’s probe and the media can sort it all out. But while we wait, let’s glean some important lessons from this crash that happened while Joe Philbin was asleep at the wheel.

Control Your Camp

A root of this scandal is the hazing of rookies, an NFL rite of passage that many if not all teams partake. There are, however, strict codes of personal conduct which forbid many of the hazing rituals, and Incognito’s antics, in particular. The SunSentinel had this to say about Philbin’s enforcement of those codes: “sources say players were annually directed by coach Joe Philbin to ‘cut out’ the rookie hazing. Philbin comes from a Green Bay Packers culture where rookie hazing is minimal, or at least subtle. While Philbin tried to rein it in with the Dolphins, he and his coaching staff never policed it when the team was dyeing and shaving heads for the second straight training camp.” Now, I’m not naïve; of course rookie hazing will transpire. But taking it too far can cause a real problem – just ask Joe Philbin, who now has to deal with both the NFL and David Cornwell, both potential barbarians at the gate.
Philbin’s laissez-faire attitude toward the unwritten rules of the locker room are a big ol’ chicken, coming home to roost. With such a mediocre record, it is surprising that he wasn’t more vigilant. When you are brought into a leadership role, you are brought in to lead. This means, at a minimum, having a thumb on the pulse, and collars on the dogs. As a leader, you need to control your camp, or it will control you.

The Right Job For The Man
In the same article cited above, Omar Kelly reported that “Miami Dolphins coaches asked player Richie Incognito, who was the offensive line’s undisputed leader, to toughen up teammate Jonathan Martin after he missed a voluntary workout last spring.” Martin actually missed two days of the team’s voluntary organized team activities (OTA’s), and Incognito was asked by coaches to “get him into the fold.” To me, missing two voluntary workouts, though unprofessional, hardly conveys a need to be “toughened up.” Perhaps Martin needed to be made better aware of the “voluntary” nature of the practices; perhaps his loyalty to the team needed readjustment; perhaps he needed more clarity on what was expected of him as a Miami Dolphin, but toughing up? I think not.

If Philbin or one of his coaches did make this call, no doubt they had the best of intentions. However, more thought should have been put into what, specifically, needed to be done with Jonathan Martin. As a leader, you need to be certain that the job you are assigning is right for the person or situation it will affect.

The Right Man For The Job

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Martin did need to be toughened up. Was Incognito the right man for the job? Admittedly so, hindsight is 20/20, but how did the staff not see this ahead of time? Are we to assume that Martin and Incognito were best of friends because of a few innocuous photos of them together on team travel? Martin is a Stanford-educated scholar that comes from a long line of Harvard graduates. Incognito is, well, none of that… If you do some digging, you’ll see that on paper and in reality, there is very little similarity between these two, and no real reason to assume that Martin would respond positively to Incognito. The outcome of the debacle proves this. Certainly there are Miami players that were better suited to motivate and mentor the wayward youngster. As a leader, you need to make sure that you’ve got the right man for the job.

If it walks like a duck…

If you take a look at Incognito’s wiki page, you’ll find any number of disciplinary issues. Suspended by, and eventually kick off of the Huskers; Dismissed from Oregon after only a week on the team; a documented history of alcohol abuse; 38 penalties and seven unnecessary roughness calls in four years with the Rams (setting a record and eventually being waived); ranked as one of the NFL’s dirtiest players… Did I miss anything? Maybe, but I don’t need to dig any further, there is a trend that a mole could see.

Now, I realize that his meanness is celebrated by some. We are talking about football at the highest level, after all. And while some sports pundits support Incognito’s pageantry – Tim Keown – was it really necessary to employ a train-wreck in motion? Let’s be honest, while Incognito is certainly talented – his combine was beyond impressive and he certainly performs on the field – the tangible, measurable, “on the ground” difference between his performance and that of his more polished competition is negligible. The logic behind signing a troublesome Incognito also supports the hiring of Charles Manson or Jim Jones to do sales because they are persuasive. The entire package needs to be considered, especially when the stakes are so high. As a leader, if it walks like a duck, feed it some bread – not a million dollar contract – and be on your way.