School & District Management Opinion

Leadership and NFL’s Roger Goodell

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 10, 2013 4 min read
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There is not a day that goes by that school leaders do not get criticized, second-guessed, or corrected and almost always it is in public. What drives someone to embrace this seemingly thankless job? Most are somehow called to it, by an inner knowing that it is their work or by invitation from others who see in them what they may not. They may exhibit passion, compassion, vision, intelligence in multiple forms, authenticity, integrity, and deeply held values. When the time requires, they stand up courageously. Can these qualities be taught ...or are they in us from early on?

The story of how each of us became who we are is similar only in that we began as children and grew up. The details of that journey are different for each of us. However, Burns (2003) reported the most important influences on the shaping of leaders lie in their childhood years. Lignon, Hunter, and Mumford (2008) agree that leaders’ understanding of themselves and their life experiences shape the way they think and act. Leaders act upon their experiences and self-understanding, which influences how they approach a challenge or a problem.

ESPN reports Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League, is leading his organization with mixed reviews. In recent days, he has been sharply criticized for his decisions. There are those who say he is making it safer for the players while leading football to greater revenues. Others say the penalties he dispensed, such as those enforced on the New Orleans Saints, were too harsh. He is trying to diminish the contact that must be part of the game. Some perceive him to be an autocrat while others see him as highly principled and unwavering. Goddell publically identified his greatest fear - a player dying on the field. He is determined to protect the safety of all players while still supporting the game. He is not afraid to take responsibility as commissioner and acts powerfully, even with much opposition. We all know that public opinion about leaders is usually mixed. Sometimes it even hurts.

This paragraph could read, “Roger Goodell, Superintendent of Schools, is leading his organization with mixed reviews. There are those who say he is making schools safer while improving graduation rates. Others say the manner in which he deals with bullying and toy guns is harsh and unreasonable. His greatest fear is that a student will die in a classroom while his greatest commitment is that every child will graduate, college and career ready.” Surely these words have been written about even the best among us.

What can we learn from Roger Goodell and how he became the force he is? We are the sum total of our life experiences. The model of those important individuals who were present as we grew up lives in all of us. In Goodell’s case, his father, known for his uncompromising politics, was his hero. Charles Goodell was a Republican senator from New York who stood up against his own party and opposed continuing war in Viet Nam. He bravely introduced a bill in the senate to end the war. That act cost him reelection. President Nixon and powerful Republicans supported his opponent in the next election. There can be retribution sometimes. How does this impact his son? It seems Charles Goodell’s lessons remain at the core of his son’s integrity.

It is not without help that we become legitimate, authentic, moral leaders. Yet, as adults we are responsible, individually. Regardless of whether we agree with his actions or not, Roger Goodell stands firm, in part because he had a model. He will be right and he will be wrong, but he will take risks and he will be decisive.

Not all children have the advantage of a parent or family member who invests in them, who acts as a model for behaviors that are essential in a leader. As educational leaders we have a responsibility to be those models of moral integrity, of standing by our values and of making courageous decisions even when they are unpopular. It is not a leadership course alone that will develop our next generation of leaders - it is experience with real leaders.

The ESPN report tells of a 22 year old, Roger Goodell who wrote a note to his father that read, “If there is one thing I want to accomplish in my life besides becoming Commissioner of the NFL, it is to make you proud of me.” His father responded:

Feel only your own pressure.
Your own is sufficient.
Take on the various opportunities
Calmly and collectedly.
I wish I could help more.
But now is when you are on your own
With lots of support.

On his own with lots of support...that’s works for school leaders as well. We are responsible for the next generation of leaders. We must be sure that our schools are encouraging and nurturing those behaviors for those who will follow us soon and for our students. We need more courageous leaders and they are sitting right in front of us.

Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership. New York: Grove Press.
Ligon, G. S., Hunter, S. T., & Mumford, M. D. (2008). Development of outstanding leadership: A life narrative approach. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(3), 312-334. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2008.03.005

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