Technical Foul: Leadership Lessons from the Rutgers Basketball Scandal


What leadership lessons can we learn from the recent firing of Rutgers coach Mike Rice?

If you have been following the news story about how now former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was verbally and physically abusing his players, then you undoubtedly know that he was fired and that his assistant Jimmy Martelli has also recently resigned.

In addition, others at the university are also under investigation.

Why is this happening?  Mike Rice has been shown in videos as a poor example of a leader – shoving, throwing basketballs, yelling gay slurs at players. Some call it passion. But is this passion appropriate?

Passion on Display

Passion is important, but how that passion is displayed is also very important. Now, we all have a different level of tolerance for “tough love” leadership; however, for those serving as role models for young people, distinguishing between an appropriate amount of toughness and going too far often becomes a fine line. Unfortunately for many involved, Mike Rice crossed that line on more than one occasion.

New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, said it perfectly:

This is not the type of example we should be setting for our young people.”

The Governor is absolutely correct. Most of us learn by example. We learn by what we see and hear. Leaders need to set good examples for those they lead, whether on the court or in the boardroom. Rice’s example of leadership was a most certainly poor one.

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Levels of Acceptable Behavior

What this shows is when you’re teaching someone to do something, that if they don’t do it right, instead of encouraging them (and that’s not to say, particularly in sports, that a bit of tough love is discouraged when used appropriately) being physically or verbally abusive is an acceptable way to motivate them to perform. It isn’t.

“Coaches who can outline plays on a black board are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their player and motivate.” ~ Vince Lombardi

The evidence that this does not work can be proved simply by looking at Mike’s record over his 3 years as head coach. His record shows a measly 44 wins and 51 losses. Now, his type of leadership style is not the only reason for the losing record, however it is certainly a contributing factor to it.

Whether you are a coach, a CEO, an educator, or a Governor, it’s your job to lead by positive example.

It is your job to lead the team in a way that inspires others and make others want to follow you. You have to do this whether they are players, employees, or constituents. Good leadership is about supporting and influencing in a way that makes others want to follow your lead, respect you, and trust you.

Creating Your Environment

It’s the job of a good leader to create an environment in which people can fully develop their potential and actively participate to the fullest extent for the benefit of themselves and the group.

Good leaders should never need to resort to belittlement, manipulation, or force.

Imagine how people would have responded if Governor Christie threw basketballs at those who ignored his warnings to evacuate before Hurricane Sandy?  Imagine if a CEO yelled slurs at an employee for not grasping a concept they were trying to convey? They may not get fired, but they certainly will have a tougher time gaining support and high performance in the future.

Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. ~ Sam Walton

So how do you lead by example and gain high performance? How do you get people to follow, respect, and support your leadership?

3 Ways to High Performance Leadership


Be transparent. If your team isn’t performing to what you think is the best of their ability, then tell them, and explain why. Offer some constructive criticism and ideas for improvement. Ask their opinions. Don’t scream and yell and throw a tantrum.

People can usually tell when “something is up.”

So before frustration mounts and productivity is impacted, communicate with your team. When trying to increase performance, making strategic decisions, determining changes, or facing issues that impact the team or organization, successful leaders need to be very specific in their actions

They need to be transparent and to communicate with those they lead about the concerns, performance, how these matters arose, their thought process for improvement and how solutions or lack of action may directly impact those they lead.


Create a safe and trusting environment. This can’t happen if you’re verbally, emotionally or physically abusive to those you lead.

Trust is a fundamental behavior for any relationship, both personal and professional.

According to a study by the Hay Group, a global management consultancy, there are 75 key components of employee satisfaction (Lamb & McKee, 2009).

They found this: Trust and confidence in top leadership was the single most reliable predictor of employee satisfaction and high performance.

Trust must be earned. Leaders can earn employee trust by helping those they lead understand the overall strategy and mission, informing them how they contribute to achieving key goals, and sharing information with their team on both how the organization is doing and how a team member’s own performance is relative to organizational objectives.

It is much easier for employees to trust a leader that supports their growth and development and shows a genuine interest in them.

Self Awareness 

Be self aware. Successful leaders have a heightened level of self-awareness; they have an understanding of themselves, their behaviors and actions, and how those behaviors and actions are interpreted by, and directly impact, those they lead.

Personally, I don’t think Mike Rice was wearing his self-awareness hat.

A good example of leadership self-awareness is exhibited in the U.S. Army’s leadership philosophy of “be, know, do.”

  • Be proficient and competent
  • Know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses
  • Do take responsibility and lead by example

Always be open to further growth and learning. Professional coaching is also a great way to help further develop leader self-awareness.

Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better. ~ Bill Bradley

So, what are you doing to be an example of positive leadership? Are you contributing to high performance or hindering long-term success? Remember, whether a leader on the court or in the office – you’re a role model – so act like one!


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Scott Span
Scott Span
 is President of Tolero Solutions OD & Change Management firm
He helps clients be responsive, focused, and effective to facilitate sustainable growth
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L2L Contributing Author