James Hird and the elusive truth about leadership integrity

How lapses of leadership integrity are viewed depends on how popular or valuable the “culprit” is to a business, investors, brand, society or power groups. AAP/Joe Castro

As James Hird falls on his sword, relinquishing his treasured role of Essendon coach amid a mix of grief and relief, the question remains what went wrong for a leader known for his integrity, on the sporting field at least.

In the end it was Essendon’s record on the field that has proven Hird’s undoing. But how did Hird come to agree to a questionable regime of treatments for his charges? Was he thinking of the risks and consequences to those athletes he was leading? Was he aware or paying attention to the due diligence when decisions were made?

Humans can feel “compelled to comply” by the context they are in, as illustrated in the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments and countless examples throughout history.

Every day, leaders somewhere risk the health and safety of their followers and people opt to blow or not blow the whistle. Weighing up the complex demands of decisions where two or more options are equally attractive or unattractive, causes cognitive dissonance.

The result is difficulty in deciding which way to go, and responses range from impulsivity to paralysis to relieving the ambiguity of the situation. Such dissonance would be experienced by coaches seeking a competitive edge by developing athletes using a range of programs to reach supreme fitness, health and performance whilst simultaneously knowing there are risks and consequences.

Moral dilemmas are common; whether we act with courage or compliance depends on a whole range of factors in any given situation. Societies, groups and individuals decide (develop norms) to determine if is acceptable to make racist or other derogatory statements about people or groups in private, but not in public.

Leadership implies doing something for and with followers, showing integrity means doing the right thing or being consistent across contexts with all the people in the leaders’ influence and whether in public or private. It is not easy to resist the tide of group behaviour or our own natural patterns.

Examples of private selves leaking into the public images have been captured by video or audio where political and sport leaders have shown lapses in judgement that led them to say or do something that revealed perhaps their true rather than espoused values. Recall the politician who smelled a chair of a female colleague or another who opted to take a helicopter to a Liberal party fundraiser in Geelong.

In sport there has been reference to animals along with public derision of Sydney Swans player and Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes. People would be unlikely to make public expressions of racism alone or with a camera on them, but when in a group or not aware of what is around us, those cracks in integrity appear.

Claims of “lapses” have been variously excused depending on how popular or valuable the “culprit” is to a business, investors, brand, society or power groups. Contrast the defence of Eddie McGuire, a valuable brand and let off the hook by many, with Nick Krygios, who has been severely criticised for the sledging of a contestant. Krygios is clearly seen as a valuable sport commodity, but not good for “Brand Australia”, so he has been universally rounded upon.

How other “leaders” come to their defence and excuse or criticise such behaviour illustrates slipping and shifting leadership integrity principles depending on the person displaying the behaviour rather than the actual behaviours. So we need conversations about leadership integrity and to consider the implications of pervasive inconsistencies that apply to people, rather than behaviours that weaken claims of integrity in society, sport and business.

James Hird, despite his solid record of integrity and fairness, is not the first and won’t be the last to have his leadership and integrity decisions made public, scrutinised and challenged. If there had been cameras on him when he made his decision to the treatment (if indeed he did), the decision might have been different.

The situation at Essendon was not an emergency or a disaster where leaders have to make decisions under pressure so errors can be excused; this was likely a decision made over a period of time in several contexts and involving a number of people. The integrity of those involved and their decision as well as the systems and procedures around these moved from private to public examination and have been deflected on to James.

As with many enduring stories with multiple episodes and a cast of thousands, James is the leading man and the elusive “truth” in his leadership integrity is for the time being hidden behind signed agreements until sometime in the future when another truth is told. “History is written by the victors” is an often quoted phrase and for the moment the story is half-told - but the script will be an unfolding leadership-integrity case study for years to come.

James Hird’s resignation is similarly a story of leadership integrity; this narrative is about doing something for his club, the fans and the players. The decision was likely a mix of agony, expediency, care for others, exhaustion, having no alternative or being worn down by the pressures. Whatever the reason, this emerging exemplar of leadership integrity illustrates the real point that authentically showing integrity across all contexts is rare, difficult and potentially traumatic and takes a toll that few people including James can withstand.

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