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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

The Rutgers Basketball Fiasco: Leadership, Responsibility and Accountability

Mel Evans/AP

If you follow sports or even just the news in general, you’ve likely seen the video of Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice shoving his players, hitting them with thrown balls and screaming homophobic slurs at them during practices last year. Make that former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice because once the tape was aired on ESPN this week, went viral and commentators started calling for his head, he was fired within 24 hours.

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “during practices last year.” As reported in the New York Times, Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti and university president Robert Barchi both knew about the way Rice treated his players months ago. When they found out, they suspended him for three games but also renewed his $700,000 annual contract. It was only after the video got out and people like the hosts of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption demanded Rice’s dismissal before their show ended that the coach was fired.

Which brings us to the distinction between being responsible and being accountable. It’s pretty simple actually. If you’re responsible, you do it; if you’re accountable, you own it. In the Rutgers case, Rice was the responsible party. He did it. Pernetti and Barchi were accountable. Rice reported to them and they owned whatever he did. They not only owned it, they botched it. If it’s a fire-able offense after the video gets out, it was a fire-able offense before it got out.

When it came time to make a tough decision, the A.D. and the President took a pass. They ignored their accountability. If you’re in a leadership role long enough, you’re going to face situations when your accountability demands that you take action. Here are three questions to ask to determine what to do next:

To whom am I ultimately accountable? – In the Rutgers case, the A.D. and the President were ultimately accountable to the players who were abused by their coach. Sure, there were other things like TV contracts and athletic conference affiliations to consider, but the ultimate accountability was to the powerless people on the front line.

What would an objective observer say? – When the Rutgers video went viral, there was unanimous consensus that the coach was way, way out of bounds. That consensus represents what an objective observer would say about the situation. When they learned about Rice’s behavior, Pernetti and Barchi needed to step back and look at it as any objective person would.

What does my conscience tell me? – This one actually comes from Jiminy Cricket who advised Pinocchio to “Let your conscience be your guide.” Leaders who find themselves confronted with tough situations need to step back far enough to give their conscience space to speak.

What’s your take? Who was accountable and responsible at Rutgers? What other steps should leaders take to make sure they follow through on their accountability?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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