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Leadership Lesson From the NBA

Tolerance Is Complete Acceptance

The unfolding of the Donald Sterling situation in the news media is most amazing to me. It is an utterly complete damning of the leadership of the NBA. I will not stop there. It is a damning of the leadership of the NAACP, the National Basketball Players Association and pretty much anyone else that represents leadership organizations that have had the opportunity to work with Donald Sterling.

The basics of leadership have been completely disregarded. One of those basics—anything the leader tolerates is full acceptance.

The NBA has been aware of Sterling’s actions for years. The NAACP, doing their due diligence, had to be aware of the lawsuits for discriminatory housing acts and still decided on recommending Sterling for a prestigious award. The NBA Players Association never claimed any type of hostile work environment. What we see here is tolerance of bad behavior. Any tolerance of ethical or legal bad behavior is full agreement.

A person’s personal feeling is just that personal. There is little one can do to change that. Changing personal beliefs takes time and a willingness to see things differently. In this case, racism, the foul is when a person, any person, takes action that is racist in nature. That requires action. I believe it was Voltaire that said that for justice to be effective it must be “swift and terrible.”

In the case of Donald Sterling’s expressed feelings towards African Americans, I am not sure what justice he is in line for. The various actions he has taken that have violated the law I believe he has been sued for, housing discrimination, sexual harassment and, according to news reports each instance was settled out of court.

My point, he has not been an undercover racist or sexist. The NBA and all the other governing or oversight organizations have tolerated his actions. The evidence is his continued ownership of an NBA Team.

Why? This article would become an epic sized book to go into it with any detail. Let’s keep it simple, which I advise all leaders to work hard to do, fair firm and consistent behavior, also a leadership staple, needs what you do to one you will need to do to others.

For those of you who are studying the Art of Leadership, this is a great case study playing out in front of you. What would you do? Why? How does that impact future decisions?

As a young Marine Lieutenant, the greatest advice I ever received came from a diehard racist.

I was at the Officer’s Club at the Little Creek, Virginia’s Naval Amphibious Base one afternoon. There were a number of officers there seated throughout the bar.  I sat down at the “U” shaped bar and ordered a sandwich and a cold beer. Directly across from me say a Marine Major, his hair was so red it appeared to be on fire. From his lack of steadiness, it was clear he had been at the bar for some time.

The Major looked at me, locked eyes and said, with a booming voice—NIGGERS!!!

Needless to say, he caught my undivided attention and everyone in the Officer’s Club.

He went on a verbal tirade, explaining how much he hated niggers, and how we were ruining the Marine Corps. As the Club began to empty out, the bartender asked if I would like to make my order a “to-go?” I said no. My order came in what must have been record time.

The Major never seemed to get tired. He continued his rants and I began to eat slower and slower. My Grandmother would have been proud, she always told me to chew my food well. I chewed so well, it was liquefied when I swallowed.

Once the bar was completely empty. The Major stopped his rants. He came around the bar and sat next to me.

He said to me, “Lieutenant, you will never have to worry about me, nor anyone like me. I’m done.” He went on, “you’d better worry about all those other bastards!” He said this while stretching his arms wide showcasing a now empty Officer’s Club. “They think like me, but don’t have the balls enough to say it! Someone like me will never hurt you. You’ll see me coming. They will stab you in the back!”

Truer words have never been spoken. If you as a leader tolerate any injustice, you completely accept it. There is no middle ground.

Is Sterling guilty of being a racist or is he guilty for racist actions? In this case which is it? What would you do? I know what I would do.