When Does “Loyalty” Turn Into “Insanity” (or “Hubris”)?

“They’re Not Really Re-hiring Him, Are They?!?!”

Welcome Back??

I was driving into work the other morning, listening to my favorite sports talk show when one of the hosts said something about “Isiah Thomas returning to the Knicks.”  “Nahhhh,” I thought — “that couldn’t possibly be right.”  But, amazingly, it was true.  This set me to pondering the question of “loyalty” (or perhaps, “blind loyalty”).  Where does it stop being a virtue and become something else — something that, when taken to the extreme, can end up “doing no one any favors,” as the expression goes?  And, taken far enough, can it really be a sign of hubris more so that a quality best exemplified by “man’s best friend”?

Rise and Fall of a Career

For those not familiar with Mr. Thomas’ career or the recent on-and-off-the-court (mis)fortunes of both himself and the Knicks, here is a quick recap.

  • Isiah Thomas finishes an All-Star career as a player and is inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.

    Isiah Thomas

  • A few years later, he purchased a minor basketball league, the CBA, and within 18 months managed it into bankruptcy and out of existence.
  • He parlayed this into a role as President of the New York Knicks, one of the NBA’s premier franchises.
  • During his tenure with the Knicks, he engaged in a series of highly questionable personnel moves, saw the team’s on-the-court performance sink to worst-in-the-league depths, installed himself as coach for a period of time and saw the team’s record decline even further.
  • As a capstone to his tenure, he and his employer were sued for sexual harassment, lost the case at trial, and ultimately cost the team $11.5 million to settle the matter with the plaintiff — due, among other claims, to running the team and the organization at large in a “fraternity house” manner.
  • Forced by public opinion to bring in an experienced professional to clean up the mess that the organization had become, ownership stripped Mr. Thomas of his President role and ultimately dismissed him from the organization.

All this led me to wonder, “Why would the team possibly want this person to come back — in any capacity?” (an emotion echoed by any number of local commentators and writers — several of whom dubbed it the “most bizarre sports story” of their tenures).

The First HR “Lesson”

HR Lessons

OK, you may be saying, what is so surprising about that?  Someone who excelled in one role (as a player) couldn’t translate those skills into another role (executive management).  The “Peter Principle” is an article of faith in most circles — i.e., that we promote people to the highest level of their incompetence.  And, as any HR person or manager who has ever been involved in hiring can attest, hiring isn’t a perfect science and even the best processes fall down sometimes — i.e., just because we work hard to identify the skills needed in a position, that doesn’t mean that we see clearly whether any one particular employee or candidate has those skills.  And, even if they have the skills, this doesn’t always mean that they “work out” in the position.

All  true, of course — so, that wasn’t the part that was surprising.

The Shocking Part

If someone has a lengthy history of creating havoc, wrecking organizational performance, consistently failing to achieve required results, and — to put the cherry on top — costing their company millions of dollars to say nothing of nationwide scorn and derision, would you expect them to be hired again in an executive capacity anytime soon?  Moreover, would you expect them to be rehired by the same organization (and essentially back into the same role) where they created all the havoc?  Yet and still, this is exactly what the Knicks have done (by signing Thomas to a “consultant/president-in-waiting” contract).

More sadly, I think most would agree that this — while shocking — is in fact something happens in many organizations.  That’s the part that concerns me.  (By the way, this happened over the reportedly strong objections of the man brought in to clean-up Thomas’ mess a few years ago.  And, the “in waiting” part is because Thomas is expected to someday take over his previously-held president’s role, thus replacing the man who replaced him).

** Note: I’m not much of a pro basketball fan, so I have no rooting interest (basketball-wise) for or against Mr. Thomas.  By most accounts, he’s a quite charming and personable fellow.  My interest in this is really just from an HR/organizational perspective.

A Charitable View: “Loyalty”

Loyal friends

A sympathetic reader might (rightfully) say, “OK. Team ownership is just being ‘loyal’ to someone who they like and who they feel has been loyal to them.  So, what’s the big deal if they give him a “title” and keep him on the payroll for a while?”  The answer to that would be “nothing,” of course, as far as it goes (especially in these “free agent” times, loyalty is a notable quality, indeed).

However, while it shows loyalty/kindness to the individual, one must wonder what unintended effects these actions have — i.e., what “message” is being sent to other employees and others outside of the organization — particularly when taken to the extreme?

If the intended message is, “We have a culture of kindness and forgiveness here,”  is there a point at which kindness to the individual becomes so out-of-whack with reality (i.e., is it truly “kind” to anyone to keep an executive in a role in which he is wholly unsuited and in which he can do grave damage to the organization?) that it slips into insanity (i.e., denial of reality)?

From Insanity to Hubris

James Dolan, owner of the Knicks

Going further, at what point does an action taken despite and against the advice of almost any rational adviser become pure hubris on the part of management — i.e., “I don’t care what anyone thinks.  I’m in charge.  I can do this.  I want to do this.  So I will.”  Again, I don’t know the Knicks management and I know of the situation only what has been reported in the media.  Given the recent history of the organization under current ownership, though (i.e., consistent poor performance and controversy), all indications would be that “hubris” might be the operative term here (at least in terms of the team’s seeming disdain for the views of its fans).

Sidenote: The most shocking part of all of this may be that, at least based on current reports, if Mr. Thomas does return to the organization (his contract is being reviewed and may be voided by the league for legal and ethical reasons unrelated to any of the above), his predecessor (the current president) doesn’t intend to resign.  Wow — that part really surprises me! (We’re not talking about people here who have to work to put food on the table for their families.  The president certainly could afford to walk away on principle, if he so chose).

How Can We Help An Organization In These Straits?

The simple answer might be, “Leave.”  Not to be glib, but that truly might be the best course to take.  If you view a set of actions as consistently demonstrating values with which you disagree, most professionals will try to question and influence the situation as much as they can, at first.  At a certain point, though, it is too uncomfortable — and truly the “wrong thing to do” (if we have any options) — to stay with an organization whose ethics and values — as demonstrated by their words and deeds, over the course of time — are inconsistent with your own.

Means of escape?

What of those who are stuck in organizations inconsistent with their values but who — for financial reasons, the poor economy, slow job market, need to feed and clothe their dependents, etc. — can’t “escape” right now?  I don’t have a great answer for that, to be candid — other, perhaps, than this:  It is for those folks that we (HR professionals and other managers in organizations) wake up each day, trying to “fight the good fight”, helping our organizations live up to their stated values and do the right thing by people — on the belief that “doing the right thing” and having a profitable company that demonstrates excellence in all that it does are consistent goals, not opposed/mutually exclusive ends.

That it may be so!

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