“Success is a journey that we all take, and it affects every phase of our lives. In order to thrive during that journey, we have to have a clear view of what success is, what it isn’t, and what it will take to achieve it.” – Jim Tressel

The above statement came from the first two sentences of the first chapter of the former Jim Tressel - Leadership Lessoncoach’s book. Jim Tressel had it all, it seemed, especially when it came to leadership and coaching:

  • A leadership book: The Winners Manual: For the Game of Life
  • A teacher’s attitude:Taught a class at Ohio State on the art of coaching and, yes, this was during football season; it wasn’t something most coaches do
  • A winning record: His Buckeye career was 106-22, a good ratio at any game

So, what happened?

No one will really know, other than Jim Tressel himself. However, the fact remains that the former coach knew of the wrongful actions by his players, and then he lied about it. These actions were inconsistent with the image of Coach Tressel.

We can speculate as to why these poor choices were made. It could include such things as:

  • “Everybody’s doing it.” Although there are rules, only the fools follow them. Joining in just because others are doing it does not make it right, ever. 
  • “We are above the rules.” The rules were made for other programs, not ours. Feeling like you are better than everyone else is not a well-grounded leadership principle.
  • “What we are doing is not really that bad.” The rationalizing voice is always dangerous. It may start with a small indiscretion, and then each added indiscretion gets just a bit bigger. There is a snowball effect which can be unleashed, delivering eventual harm to all involved and nearby.
  • “I can get away with it.” This may be one of the more dangerous attitudes. It is one of really knowing it was wrong and then doing it anyway. In this case, a parasite culture surrounds the organization and leaders, leaving it badly damaged.

Again, I do not know Jim Tressel or what his attitude was about these issues. Where the clarity lies is in the fact there was a failure in being the leader he portrayed himself to be. Our choices and actions always define who we really are.

Are others to blame? Probably. The Christian Science Monitor may have got it right in that there is blame to be distributed, including the NCAA. Check outOhio State Football Scandal: Is Coach or ‘Hypocritical’ NCAA to Blame?  More importantly, the Ohio State athletic department failed in their compliance tracking and reporting and maybe even fostering this culture of skirting the rules or playing the gray areas.

Here’s a part of the lesson. We cannot take on the attitudes outlined above. We must understand our core principles deep inside us and constantly align our choices and actions with our true principles.

Jim Tressel seemed to have all the right principles, but he lost the alignment of principles-to-actions. The question that baffles me in situations like this one is why does it happen?

The answer which hit me is the lack of accountability. Jim Tressel seemed to be a solid leader, but something failed him in this case. Being held accountability is a leadership basic, and there needs to be two levels of it.

The first level is Internal Accountability. There are questions we need to ask ourselves in these situations to validate that our choices and actions are aligned with our principles. It is a clear moment of soul questioning:

  • Is what I am about to do aligned with what I say others should do?
  • Am I listening to the spirit inside me? Is it sounding an alarm of inconsistency or different direction?
  • Am I about to do something which I would be proud for my family to read about in the headlines tomorrow morning?

The second level is External Accountability. This is the last resort, the last barrier before going off and doing something damaging. These people are our friends and colleagues who should — and must — hold us accountable for our actions. They cannot look the other way, just as we cannot. We need to seek them out and use them as a sounding board and as a gut check. We need to be in their face, and they need to be in ours. This is not an adversarial relationship, but one which keeps each other balanced in our life pursuits.

  • Do you have those accountability friends and colleagues? If not, who can you find for this role?
  • Do you seek the external accountability when something doesn’t seem right? Are you being honest with them?

The lesson from the Jim Tressel leadership failure seems to be one of accountability. His principles and leadership approach appeared to be fine; however, his internal accountability barriers weakened, and there were few, if any, external barriers present as the final prevention of bad choices and actions.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very weak and 5 being very strong, how do you rate your internal and external accountability barriers?