The Accountability Myth – Why the current Leadership models in High Performance Sport are failing (badly).

The Accountability Myth – Why the current Leadership models in High Performance Sport are failing (badly).

Time to be honest about this whole Leadership concept in high performance sport – it is not working.

And why?

It’s not working because of the Accountability Myth: The Accountability Myth is the reason why the current Leadership models in High Performance Sport are failing (badly).

Every professional sporting team in the world has some sort of leadership plan, leadership program, leadership group, leadership team, leadership system and leadership structure.

And yet, every day, the back pages of the world’s sporting press and the on line sporting web sites, blogs, wikis and news services are littered with stories about what’s wrong with sport:  more about trouble than triumphs, more about violence than victory, more about scandals than scoring.

So, the message is simple and very very clear:the current leadership models in high performance sport are failing and failing badly.

And why? The current trend in most professional teams is to create leadership groups and give players the opportunity to collaborate with the coaching team by accepting some ownership for the team’s preparation and performance. How can involving and engaging players in the decision making of a professional team not work?

The reason…the accountability myth.

Accountability is like being pregnant: you either are or you are not.

If you accept a leadership role in a professional team then you are accountable: not half accountable, semi-accountable or fractionally accountable. There is no part-time accountability, no nine day fortnight of accountability with the tenth day off to not be accountable: if you willingly accept a role which includes accountability – then you are accountable.

But, a new accountability has emerged in high performance sport – it’s called Convenient Accountability or Conveccountability for short.

This new accountability – conveccoutability – is the accountability you have when you are not really accountable. It is being accountable only up until when things get a bit ugly, a bit serious (and a bit public), then it becomes an S.E.P. (to quote the late, great Douglas Addams) – a Someone Else’s Problem.

Why don’t the current leadership models work in high performance sport? Because real accountability is a myth– it does not really exist. It lives in a bag somewhere in another world with Unicorns, the Dodo, Honest Politicians and really lovable mother in laws…but it does not live in the real world of high performance sport.

And for that reason, the current leadership models fail over and over and over again.

Players are happy to accept the tag of “team leader”.

They are happy to be seen as one of the “leadership group”.

They are happy to take on an important role in team strategies, tactics and even selection decisions.

They are happy to sit on discipline committees and fine players for arriving to training late wearing odd socks.

But when things go really wrong (and by really wrong read “publicly” wrong), no one is happy to put their hand on their heart and take full responsibility and accountability for the problem.

Let’s look at some examples.

A professional football team – which has a leadership group – wins the title. The following year – not so good. The next year even worse. The year after that their winning record is under 10%. The predictable happens…the head coach gets sacked.

Why? Because the coach is accountable. Says so in his contract.

But, the coach was not alone in his accountability. A review two years before the team’s title victory, recommeded the team create a leadership group so that the players could have more input into the decision making process and thereby have more ownership of the team’s preparation and performance.

Upon hearing of the coach’s sacking, did the players from the leadership group accept accountability and either resign or accept a significant pay cut? No.

They are only accountable when it suits them to be: convenient accountability.

In the defence of players, most of the time, real accountability is taken out of their hands. The Board or Management Team or Media Spin Manager decides that having the players publicly accept full accountability will damage the one thing more important than the team’s performance…..the organisation’s Brand…you know, that thing the organisation sells to sponsors, the fans, the television audiences – you know…the Brand.

It is because protecting the Brand is more important than any player, any coach, any team, any result that full and total accountability is a myth and is why the current leadership models are failing.

Consider another example. A player from the leadership group breaks a team rule or is involved in a scandal (drugs, alcohol, sexual harassment – take your pick).

Does the player immediately contact the media, organise a press conference and say, “Please forgive me. I did something wrong. It was my fault. I accept full responsibility and accountability for my actions and willingly accept any and all consequences as a result”. No.

No – the organisation convenes it’s Crisis Management Teamand they work around the clock to spin the story so the player not only appears innocent but he should actually be awarded for running naked through a neighbourhood shopping centre blind drunk yelling obscenities at children, spinning it as “Our player’s tireless contribution to the local community and commitment to communicating with the youth of our nation”.

The name of the game is not, “how do we grow a strong, sustainable, high performance culture where everyone accepts full accountability for their own decisions, standards, actions and inactions: the name of the game is protect the Brand at all costs: it’s about damage control.

Trouble in professional sport is like an iceberg – you only ever get to see a fraction of what’s really there. In many teams, accountability is only publicly accepted when the story has been broken in the media and public admissions seem like the only way to get out of jail with Brand more or less in tact.

There is an explanation for all this……money.

When it all comes down to it – professional football is a business, professional basketball is a corporate exercise, professional hockey a marketing vehicle: professional sport is about making money…and lots of it.

So what if we sack the head coach, who cares? People don’t pay to watch coaches coach: they pay to see players play and win. Coaches are expendable and replaceable: good players are rare and great ones even rarer. Sack the coach, protect the players, bury the truth, spin the story and move on quickly before someone notices.

Want real leadership? Real leadership which grows and sustains the success of the organisation (and the Brand) for the long term???

Then embrace real accountability: and not just for players and coaches: but for management, Board, office staff, sports scientists, medical team…everyone is accountable for their decisions, their actions, their inactions, their behaviours, their standards and their professionalism.

All change is personal: this comes down to personal leadership and to the decisions of individuals to embrace real accountability. This is the new leadership: the personal leadership of individuals.

And if someone stuffs up: Don’t spin it: chin it (as in take it on the chin). Stand up, look the team, the organisation, the fans, the sponsors, the media and the public in the eye (or the camera lens) and say with total humility, sincerity, integrity and honesty, “It was me – I did it – I am responsible and I am accountable”.

Only when professional teams and high performance sports , (and more importantly each individual who is part of the organisation) start openly and honestly embracing this total accountability environment will their leadership programs work effectively.

The time has come to change the culture of Spin and conveccountability to one of honesty, openness, integrity and real, genuine 100%, 24/7 accountability.

Reject the Spin, and Win!

Wayne Goldsmith


  • Jeremy Pryce Posted July 25, 2010 9:12 pm

    Can the culture you describe (that needs to be changed) be a result of an environment where traditionally, ego´s run amok? How many ego´s do you think take responsibility when things go wrong? The ego by nature, projects outward.

    Only with a paradigm shift in professional sport will accountability take it´s rightful place in that environment. Sorry to be so gloomy, but I call it as I see it.

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted July 27, 2010 4:38 pm

      Thanks JP.

      I believe I am seeing a move around the world to this total accountability environment in many professional teams, primarily due to the fact that the public, the fans, the media and the sponsors are sick and tired of the spin doctors who try to make turpentine smell like rose petals.

      I am actually positive and encouraged about where this is heading – we just have to shift some of the dinosaurs who still think in terms of convenient accountability and brand protection.

  • Paul Clarke Posted July 26, 2010 4:43 am

    Hi Wayne, I’ve only recently discovered your writings and thoughts and in the main It’s all impressive stuff. Particualrly like the article “Great Coaches: be the best of the best”. Hit the nail right on the head in a nice concise manner. Anyway, keep up the great work and hopefully I can get involved in constructive comments/debate.Best of luck

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted July 27, 2010 4:45 pm

      Thanks Paul.

      Appreciate the comments. I spent yesterday with one of our best National Rugby League competition (NRL) head coaches Brian Smith of the Sydney Roosters. Three things stood out:

      1. His capacity for patience, tolerance and understanding in the management of all the peripheral things, e.g. media, fans, sponsors – he made everyone feel part of the team;
      2. His ability to balance strong leadership and influence with player empowerment – an outstanding combination of quality coaching and player driven performance;
      3. His personal example – he inspired others by his personal standards, work ethic, enthusiasm, passion, professionalism and desire.

      That’s why he’s one of the best in the business – and why he continues to thrive in the game.


  • Fastpitch Softball Coaching Posted July 26, 2010 11:40 am

    The issues you raise is further complicated by the “Player Unions” in each sport which only further shields the players from accountability, even for their own behaviour (see MLB and steriods). At the end of the day, the accountability of which you speak will always be with the coach/manager. The players are asked to “police” themselves in order to give the coach another lever to get things done.

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted July 27, 2010 4:48 pm

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes – the Player Unions add another layer of complexity. So do player personal managers. And their legal advisors. In the end being honest and accepting total accountability may not be a matter of personal choice – it may take negotiation with a whole team of people. Have we got it wrong? How has it got to this stage? Who really runs sport?


  • Thom Posted July 26, 2010 3:11 pm

    To quote WG if I may, “egos extinguish excellence”.

    What you say Jeremy is true, but that culture of honesty and integrity is not as pie in the sky as one might think. Try modeling the behavior for your athletes by treating them with trust and respect and you might be surprised what happens.

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted July 27, 2010 4:57 pm

      Good comment – thank you.

      If the coach (who is married) says, “let’s live honesty, integrity and accountability” but then skips out the back door of the bar with an attractive blonde….and
      If the CEO says “let’s live honesty, integrity and accountability” but then organises secret payments and behind closed doors unethical contract deals….and
      If the Board Chairman says”let’s live honesty, integrity and accountability” but then ignores Club processes and protocols and just makes decisions on emotion and ego……..then what chance do the players have?

      A fish rots from the head!

      If you want an organisation which creates and sustains a competitive environment and lives a values based existence it all starts with consistent, quality leadership who model excellence in personal standards and behaviours.


  • Travis Posted August 3, 2010 2:53 pm

    WG, great article… I believe a culture, values, leadership groups are important to a team, club and it’s sponsors, however, but as you said when it suits or is convenient for the team, club and sponsors which in today’s sporting enviornment is driven by $$$

    I found it interesting during the aker saga over the last few weeks that the most important thing the bulldogs wanted to protect was their brand. It’s ironic that they were happy to market, promote and exploit aker’s comments when it suited them, but when push came to shove their so called brand was more important. Is there more to it then what we see, read and hear in the public domain, absolutely, but at least Aker had a vehicle to tell his side of the story, but the impact of his reply was watered down because he no longer was an employer of the club.

    It’s an interesting dynamic in any business, team or oganisation and it will be interesting to see how it plays out…

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted August 6, 2010 7:01 am

      Thanks Travis.

      My only reply to your post would be that there is always more going on behind the scenes in professional sport than is reported.
      An old friend and long time leading sports journalist told me this: Any time a Club reports bad news, it has been watered down and sanitised by a factor of five, i.e. what actually makes it into the public domain is usually far far less than what actually happened. By the time the spin doctors and Club crisis management team get through cleaning it up, what actually makes it to the Press Conference is only 20% of the real truth.

      If that’s true – and I believe it is – then anything that comes from official press releases from professional teams has to regarded as questionable.


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