It’s hard to think of an organization more rooted in the kind of toxic masculine stereotypes that typify the mean man than the NFL. And yet, one of its most successful franchises of the last few years, the Seattle Seahawks, serves as a prime example of authentic leadership at its best. “The hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch,” wrote the late David Lykken, a University of Minnesota professor of psychiatry and psychology. When we look at it this way, it’s unsurprising to see this dichotomy playing out on the football field: the beating heart of American hero worship. It’s true that both the hero and the psychopath possess a fearless temperament. But whereas the successful psychopath is the product of a culture in which meanness has run amok, the hero gives us insight into what it looks like to be successful without resorting to meanness.
We’ve examined on this blog numerous organizations in which mean rules and no one takes action, where the combination of outsize ambition and lack of empathy causes suffering. But what does it look like when ambition is channeled appropriately? When risk is part of the game but it’s not everything? When people are treated as people, not objects?
The Seattle Seahawks have an organizational philosophy that closely mirrors the cultures and practices of the Best Companies on Fortune’s list and gives us a peek into the potential antidote for organizational meanness. And nowhere is meanness more pervasive and tolerated than in professional sports. When considering potential draft picks (job candidates in this context), the Seahawks look at the language used by the players and cut from the pool those who lean on negative language or finger-pointing. They want a culture of accountability and optimism, and they start by getting the right people in the room.
The team’s coach, Pete Carroll, seems the antithesis of what we think of when we picture NFL coaches, screaming on the sideline, veins bulging, faces red. In a style that belies a fervent commitment to winning, Carroll is all about encouragement, not laying blame. He gives the individual men on the team the freedom to be themselves and sees himself as on a constant journey to identify and maximize the uniqueness of every player and coach. He is committed to a nurturing environment that allows people to be themselves while still being accountable to the team. This is a leader who recognizes that the best results will come from having happy, healthy men on his team. Carroll incorporates meditation and yoga into the team’s workouts, and yelling and swearing are strongly discouraged.
The top-down civility of Pete Carroll has a tremendous effect on all of his staff as well as his players. Tom Cable, the former coach of the Oakland Raiders with a colorful mean-man past, changed his coaching style after working with Pete Carroll as the assistant head coach and offensive line coach. “If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am,” Cable says now. “I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he is going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.”
Compare this with a speech given during the 2013 Rookie Symposium by Chris Ballard, former director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, who told the newly minted young players, “Nobody cares about your problems. The fans don’t care. The media doesn’t care. And ownership doesn’t care. They care about results.” This speech is hardly surprising in the no-whining-be-a-man culture of the NFL, but it’s still shockingly callous considering that it was delivered a scant seven months after a member of that same NFL team, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times before driving to the team’s facility and killing himself in the parking lot.
So what are the implications of the Seahawks’ unique culture of getting results while making the players’ health and well-being a top priority? Namely that being civil is not only better, but more effective. This idea, encouragingly, is starting to catch on. As many mean men as I’ve encountered in my work, I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the past few years by certain clients’ sensitivities to rooting out abusive management. Many civil entrepreneurs running firms in aggressive industries—such as hedge funds and tech companies—were shocked to discover the abuse that some of their senior managers heaped on employees. It doesn’t take a mean CEO to create a toxic climate given the proclivity of certain industries to attract mean men like jackals to fresh meat. But if the situation is flipped in these aggressive fields and the leader is civil, then the abuser is often rooted out and crushed.
In professional worlds where meanness is more than tolerated, leaders like Pete Carroll give us hope for change. If a pro football team can make it to the Super Bowl on the tailwind of civility, imagine what other organizations might accomplish.