Indra Nooyi and Roger Goodell: Personal Loyalty vs. Leadership Accountability

It caught me by surprise this week when PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi came out and publicly supported embattled NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league in general. Nooyi's vote of confidence came at a critical time for Goodell and the NFL in the wake of what has been the worst public relations fiasco in the history of the NFL, starting with the mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, as well as public denouncements by other sponsors including Anheuser Busch InBev or the outright suspension of NFL sponsorship in the case of Radisson or, today, Procter & Gamble.

Nooyi's decision and pronouncements deserve closer attention, as a study in leadership. To me, Nooyi appears to have chosen personal loyalty (to Roger Goodell) and commercial interests over the opportunity to demonstrate concern for the broader principles involved and hold the NFL accountable, but we can debate that.

Here is Nooyi's statement:

"I am a mother, a wife, and a passionate football fan. I am deeply disturbed that the repugnant behavior of a few players and the NFL's acknowledged mishandling of these issues, is casting a cloud over the integrity of the league and the reputations of the majority of players who've dedicated their lives to a career they love. When it comes to child abuse and domestic violence, there is no middle ground. The behaviors are disgusting, absolutely unacceptable, and completely fly in the face of the values we at PepsiCo believe in and cherish.

"Given PepsiCo's long-standing partnership with the NFL, I know Roger Goodell. We have worked together for many years. I know him to be a man of integrity, and I am confident that he will do the right thing for the league in light of the serious issues it is facing," Ms. Nooyi said in a statement. "Over the past several days, it is increasingly apparent that the NFL is starting to treat these issues with the seriousness they deserve," she added.

"Over the past several days, it is increasingly apparent that the NFL is starting to treat these issues with the seriousness they deserve. Hiring former FBI Director Robert Mueller to conduct a thorough investigation is a positive step, as is hiring three prominent women with significant, relevant expertise and assigning another, who is an NFL official, to help shape its domestic violence policies. These individuals must now be given the necessary time to review all relevant facts so that corrective actions can be taken, and well-tailored and effective policies against domestic violence and child abuse can be implemented immediately.

"The reality for Commissioner Goodell and the NFL is that they now have an opportunity to effect positive change with the situation presented to them. I urge them to seize this moment. How they handle these cases going forward can help shape how we, as a nation, as a society, and as individuals treat domestic violence and child abuse."

Nooyi's position, evidently grounded in personal loyalty to Goodell, as well as PepsiCo commercial interests in partnership with the NFL stand in stark contract to Marilyn Carlson Nelson's decision to suspend Radisson's sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings in the wake of the Adrian Peterson child abuse investigation. (Carlson Nelson led the efforts to bring the Super Bowl to Minneapolis in 2018.)

Some would argue that Nooyi's actions were principled, especially in the wake of such widespread outcry.

So which is more effective leadership for holding the NFL accountable? It's fair to debate the point: Could Roger Goodell actually be a more effective agent for change than an alternative?

I have absolutely no confidence in Goodell's leadership, nor have I seen any substantive actions (beyond symbolic moves, including the leagues latest policy announcements) that would signal that the NFL brass will change in any fundamental way.

As it relates to Goodell's (and the NFL's) leadership principles, the sudden media and league focus on the second Ray Rice video is completely irrelevant. For instance, Commissioner Goodell says that he hadn't seen the elevator videos until recently. Yet, what is without question is that he did see video of Rice dragging his wife out of the elevator unconscious before granting the two-game suspension. So, what's the difference? The end result was obvious from the start: There was a video of Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of an elevator.

What has changed in a big way is the growing public outrage, propelled further by the gruesome elevator video.

In the wake of public outrage, Goodell shifted his positions as if a politician, then disappeared public view. As the controversies rage on, the NFL appears rudderless, hardly inspiring confidence in Goodell or his leadership principles. I'm sure he's a decent guy, who loves football, and keeps his word, but Goodell's biggest problem is that he's acted like a bad politician, lacking in principles.

Contrast Goodell's performance with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's leadership following Donald Sterling's racist comments. Like the Silver audio recording, the Ray Rice video was a national teachable moment on a scourge to society, domestic violence, yet unlike the strong and ethical leadership from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Goodell punted.

It's worth pausing: Two games.

And, it's not as though this is a one-off instance of poor leadership. As I've said before, the National Organization of Women reported, there have been 56 instances of domestic violence reported during Goodell's tenure. In response, NFL players have been suspended for a combined total of 13 games.

This is real talk, which is what we need nationally, as well as a good deal of reflection as we think about what we're supporting as fans.

These days, winning and money seems to trump ethics in the NFL. While I fault their leadership, these are not bad people. Their actions merely represent an expression for what the rest of us say is important.

The reason Nooyi's announcement surprised me was because I had come to see her as a principled leader from afar. PepsiCo (and its subsidiary FritoLay) has many of its own ethical issues to worry about in the wake of a national obesity crisis, but I had been willing to give Nooyi and PepsiCo the benefit of the doubt. Former CEO Steve Reinemund even talked about the importance of PepsiCo finding and following its "true north," and the company appeared to be making genuine strides to diversify into healthier products.

No one in the NFL brass has yet been held accountable for the multiple leadership missteps. Nooyi's statement will only act as an enabler. The headline is all that matters: "Nooyi (and PepsiCo) supports Goodell." Don't expect change if you come out with statements that have to be parsed in order to understand their meaning. In my experience, any time statements must be parsed to understand what they actually mean, as is the case when I try to understand Nooyi's statement, it's a sign of weak leadership.

It's my great hope that Nooyi and the PepsiCo board will demand greater accountability for what has to be one of the worst examples of how to lead an organization of the year.


Peter Sims is the bestselling coauthor with Bill George of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries and the cofounder of Fuse Corps, a social venture that gives 10-20 professionals each year the opportunity to spend a year helping governors, mayors and community leaders across the United States bring about social change.