No, the coach didn’t actually die, but if you perform a “leadership autopsy” on the recent firing of Rich Rodriquez, the former University of Michigan head football coach, I think you’ll find that the ultimate cause of his demise was that he was killed by the culture because he didn’t build trust.
As a college football fan (and in the spirit of full disclosure, a rabid University of Michigan fan), and a student of leadership, I’ve found the Rich Rodriquez era at UM an interesting case study of how a recognized expert in his field, with a winning track record, could experience such turmoil and discord in 3 years that would lead to the loss of his job. His experience is a lesson for those of us in any type of leadership position. My conclusion: he was never a fit for the culture from the very beginning.
Some of that was by design. After 13 years of steady, yet mostly unspectacular success under Coach Lloyd Carr (save one shared national title in 1997), there was a move afoot by school leadership to shake things up and create a more dynamic and electrifying brand of football. Usher in Rich Rodriquez and his high-scoring spread offense, a system heretofore unseen in Michigan. So some of the blame of this failed venture falls directly on the shoulders of school leadership.
However, Rodriquez underestimated two factors (among many others!) that led to his downfall. The first was the power of the culture to kill his efforts to implement such a drastic change in philosophy. Stan Slap, an organizational consultant, calls this failure to recognize the power of the culture the “original sin” of a strategic implementation. Coach Rodriquez committed many cultural missteps when he joined Michigan. He said and did things that showed he didn’t understand or appreciate the longstanding traditions of the winningest program in college football history. When leaders implement a large organizational change, they have to remember that most people view change as a “loss.” People often lose perspective when change occurs so we have to remind them about what isn’t changing so they can have security in some form of consistency. Rapid organizational change rarely succeeds.
A second lesson that we can learn from the downfall of Rich Rodriquez is the importance of building trust. When it comes to building trust, there are four elements that need to be present: ability, believability, connectedness, and dependability. Rodriquez had ability in spades. Before coming to Michigan he was the head coach at West Virginia where he compiled a record of 60-26, four Big East titles, and six consecutive bowl game bids. But ability will only take you so far when it comes to building trust.
Rodriquez’s believability was damaged when NCAA infractions came to light during his second season. For a University who had never suffered any NCAA sanctions, this severely damaged the perceptions of his honesty and values. He also eroded trust through his lack of dependability. Dependability involves being organized and accountable in following through on commitments. Anyone who saw the repeated mistakes and disorganization of the Michigan defense this season can attest to this fact! But most of all, Rodriquez failed to build trust by connecting with folks. He didn’t show the aptitude for communicating well and building relationships. There were times he threw his players under the bus in press conferences and he seemed to be perpetually unhappy and angry over the state of affairs. Perhaps this is all a case of misjudgment, but when it comes to building trust, perception is reality.
By all accounts Coach Rodriquez was an earnest, hard working man who took pride in his efforts. We can learn from his experiences to help us in our own leadership journeys. We have to deftly manage organizational change and respect the power of the culture to work against our efforts, and we can leverage the power of the culture by building trust. Building trust in relationships is the key to success, whether we’re on the playing field or in the board room.