A Winning Message for Sports and Business -- Restore Credibility!

Can we entrust Wall Street with our finances? Are professional athletes really competing and thus deserve their fan's passion, time and money? It all boils down to trust. Here are few steps towards re-building this credibility.
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We hear often about how teamwork, getting ahead of the competition and winning apply both to high performing business units and sports teams. Often under-analyzed, yet frequently dominating our headlines, is how both sports and business are too often plagued by scandal.

Two recent glaring examples are Greg Smith's resignation op-ed letter from Goldman Sachs that outlined how the company had lost its way and the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal in which players earned bonuses for deliberately hurting opposing players. Regardless of the accuracy of Smith's claims, they reflect the current public sentiment and perceptions of the financial world. The Saints episode is just the latest in a long litany of player and team misconduct in the NFL (remember Michael Vick's dog fighting activities and the New England Patriots "spygate").

These stories affect public faith in the industries and raise questions. Can we entrust Wall Street with our finances? Are professional athletes really competing and thus deserve their fan's passion, time and money? It all boils down to trust. Here are few steps towards re-building this credibility:

  • First, both executives and athletes need to recognize the iconic role they play in society. Those who work in the finance industry are more than business men and women -- they are a cornerstone of our economy and are permitted extraordinary rewards not merely because of the financial risks they take (lots of people take risks) but because they serve as admired models of successful business acumen. Charles Barkley caused quite a stir back in the 90s for stating that athletes are not role models. The reality is that fans worldwide look up to athletes in a different way than those in other professions. Both athletes and influential executives need to conduct themselves -- in words and actions -- in a manner that reflects the stewardship role accorded by that iconic status. Leadership is more than simply running one's company for the benefit of shareholders or recording wins on the field; it is the embodiment of societal values.
  • Leaders and athletes need to also understand why they have lost their credibility and proactively work to restore confidence. They need to reflect on the reality of public perceptions and consider the extent to which these perceptions are based on an actual erosion of ethical practices and norms or rooted in poor communications. Negative perception needs to be addressed directly.
  • They need to be authentic in their response by supporting their words with actions. It isn't enough for teams and leagues to solely talk about their care for the community. Athletes and sport leaders must realize that their clients -- the fans -- can't be taken for granted. They have to demonstrate behavior that shows they really do care and respect the game, and not just their paycheck.

Similarly, short of an outright apology, financial firms need to convey a deep sense of responsibility and caring for the critical role they play in our lives. Assertions in advertisements claiming that "We know what we are doing and we care about you" are simply not sufficient, and may in fact be more damaging considering the public's negative perceptions. They need to offer reasons to believe their assertions, build a sense of community beyond Wall Street and show that their sense of trusteeship is aligned with the public's expectations.

Self-reflection, responsibility and authenticity -- it's a formula for re-gaining credibility and reduces the probability of the next sports and business scandal.

This piece is jointly written by Sanyin Siang and Sim Sitkin. Sim Sitkin is professor of management and faculty director of The Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Sanyin and Sim will be in New York today for the Fuqua Coach K Leadership Roundtable, which convenes top leaders across industries and sectors to identify ideas and solutions around problems of societal consequence.

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