In this remarkable time of transition in leadership of our country, I’ve found a hidden source of wisdom in the sayings of former pro football coach Bill Parcells.
Parcells was a highly successful coach who took four different pro teams to the playoffs over the course of his 19 seasons as an NFL head coach, winning two Super Bowls, and earning election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013. An authoritative personality and directive as a leader, he could be combative in conversation, and the verbal jousting in his post-game press conferences during the season was always entertaining. Alternately terse on some topics and loquacious on others, he kept the fourth estate on their toes, and viewers could sense tension in the room whether the team had won or lost. Woe betide the reporter who asked if something obvious was true, in an attempt to get the coach to expand upon the topic. To Bill this was a dumb question and he frequently called it such. Humiliation for the poor scribe could be swift and blistering.
He didn’t reserve his bite and invective for the news media only, however. Players were subjected to the same tough scrutiny and high standards, and while his coaching made them better, his approach was to challenge, even intimidate them into being winners, daring them to outperform themselves week after week through a long and physically demanding season. His point of view on the injury report, for example, was brief and biting: ‘In football season, football players play football.’ He could elaborate beyond that, but with such simple maxims, he made his position clear.
He gave us another saying that came to mind this month while reading about the latest and hottest part of the ‘what now?’ post-election concerns: the appointment of Steve Bannon as senior counselor and chief strategist for the Trump administration. At the risk of venturing into a firestorm, what guidance does the inventory of Parcells lore provide on this particular subject? How might other leaders building an organization take something of use from this selection for the Trump political leadership team?
The relevant Parcells wisdom is buried in an interview he did with Michael Kay on the Yes Network in 2014 when his autobiography Parcells: A Football Life came out. In the course of commenting on a departing assistant coach’s recriminations about working for Parcells, he offers this pearl: ‘Well, my dad used to tell me: when someone shows you what they are, you believe them.’
Opinions on Bannon’s appointment are mixed. The New York Times blasted out a warning based on what they’ve seen of Bannon in a November 15 editorial entitled ‘Steve ‘Turn On The Hate’ Bannon, in the White House/’ ‘Anyone holding out hope that Donald Trump would govern as a uniter,’ it began, ‘that the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and nativism of his campaign were just poses to pick up votes – should think again.’
The Wall St. Journal returned volley a day later asking ‘Who is Steve Bannon?’ and admonished the Dems to avoid partisan pyrotechnics and give the man a chance. ‘One post-election question,’ they began, ‘is whether Democrats plan to treat defeat as an education in the limits of personal destruction as a political tool, and the early evidence isn’t promising.’
They go on to assert ‘We’ve never met Mr. Bannon, and we don’t presume to know his character.’ They separate the man they have never met from the ‘incendiary Breitbart News website’ he ran, which they dismiss by implication as an attention-seeking ‘internet troll.’ They are clearly trying to go some way toward dowsing the firestorm, perhaps even taking a cue from President Obama’s attempts to lower temperatures immediately post-election, with his calls for unity, respect for the office of President, and an orderly transition of power.
They conclude by saying ‘The political tendency Mr. Bannon represents—and some of the unsavory characters he isn’t responsible for—deserves a watchful eye.’
Okay; I’ll be watching, but I’m still wondering about this choice, as I’m sure other readers are as well.
Some might wonder whether you know nothing of a man’s character if he was Chairman of an organization, Breitbart, which he explicitly denominated as the ‘platform for the alt-right,’ the online movement known for its anti-establishment, racist and anti-Semitic views. Some might further wonder whether he bears no responsibility for the actions of those who actively use his platform to expound and win converts to their ‘unsavory’ views. (Click here and here for right and left wing analyses, respectively, of Breitbart and the alt-right, and here for the Breitbart perspective.)
So, if we take Parcell’s wisdom into account, that the man is showing us who he is, what should we believe here about Steve Bannon? What does his selection mean about this Republican administration?
We should start by recognizing that Bannon is Breitbart, and Breitbart is Bannon. Even though he no longer directs its day-to-day operations, he made his authorial ownership of the site unmistakable in a Wall St. Journal interview end of week that followed up the WSJ editorial.
Secondly, we should for the moment winnow out the worry about what Bannon might become and just focus on what Bannon has shown us he is: he is a destabilizer. He made it clear in an interview published in The Daily Beast, which he attempted to discredit in the Journal interview but did not deny, that his goal is to ‘bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment,’ likening himself to Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russian Communist revolution.
We should allow that, his guilt by association with the alt-right notwithstanding, Bannon is clearly a master political tactician who has managed to put both Democratic and Republican leadership in fealty to Trump. Bannon ran Trump on the classic platform challengers take against incumbents: where we are is bad; therefore change is good. As he told the Journal, ‘So all you had to do was to give people permission to vote for Donald Trump as an agent of change, make sure he articulated that message.’
My question is this: can Bannon, once he with Trump is in the center of everything, operate so as to create stability? Or will he continue to operate like a revolutionary, who believes the ends justify the means?
The jury is still out on this. It’s easy to take a position on the edge of the action and bark ferociously at everyone and everything going by, as Breitbart has done. Now the dog has caught the bus and has a mouthful of metal: what is he going to do with it?
My view is this: Clintonites and other Democrats are licking their wounds. The forward-looking amongst them are pondering how to convincingly advance a strategy for the country that would make us successful in the world and optimally benefit our citizens. The newly-elected Trump administration must do the same.
We should all be watching – and encouraging both parties to work together in this common quest.
There is something for CEOs as well in the Parcells admonition – be mindful that within your organization, your actions show people what you are. As the results come in for the year, how are you doing? Do you comfortably ‘win election for another term’ as CEO, or are there challenges to your leadership implicit in the company’s results? How well are you following a strategy for the business that makes it successful in its world and benefits all your constituents? How are you leading so that you show everyone what you are, and that the values you embody are fundamental and enduring?
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org