Republicans buy sneakers, too: Revisited

About a year ago, I lost a bet. As a wager, I had to watch the “The Last Dance”, the Netflix documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. To me, who never watches sports on TV, sitting through a 10-part (!) series about basketball seemed to be quite dreadful. So, I thought. However, after a while I became quite interested in Michael Jordan (“MJ” for the basketball-savvy) as a leader. The episode which I found particularly intriguing was when MJ was asked to endorse Harvey Gantt, a candidate in the 1990 senate race in MJ’s home state North Carolina [4]. Gantt was a Black democrat running against the incumbent Jesse Helms, a Republican and known racist [6]. When MJ was asked to endorse Gantt, he refused with his infamous sentence “Republicans buy sneakers, too” in a nod to his sneaker collaboration with Nike. An endorsement by MJ who by then has received his first most valuable player award, an accolade the National Basketball Association grants to a season’s best performing player (yes, I’m slowly learning the lay of the basketball land) would have been quite impactful. In the documentary, this is underscored in an interview with former US president Barack Obama saying “(…) knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would’ve wanted to see Michael push harder on that.” Gantt lost to Helms with 47% of votes compared to Helms’ 53% [3]. Since then, “Republicans buy sneakers, too” is seen by many as MJ putting profits over principles.  

This prioritization of (short-term and personal) profits over principles is an interesting parallel to CEOs involved in major scandals in the business world: For example, take Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen which under his realm developed a technology to cheat on emission testing. Or take Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP which during his tenure chose a cheaper drilling technique causing an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico  [9, 12, 13]. Or take Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of Enron – the epitome of American corporate scandals - which engaged in fraudulent accounting leading to the firm’s bankruptcy.

Another common denominator to these scandals is that they had immediate business consequences (e.g., a drop in sales, declining share prices, and major layoffs) but also wider societal and environmental implications: VW’s emission gas scandal tarnished the reputation of a technology thereby endangering millions of jobs and caused massive air pollution. BP’s oil spill led to long lasting effects on the coastline and the livelihood of residents. Enron’s bankruptcy costed millions of employees their pensions. This raises a question which one might also ask in the MJ case: How far does your responsibility as a leader go?

Research on responsible leadership (RL) seeks to find an answer to this and similar questions. In a nutshell, RL means taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences thereof [16]. This line of scientific inquiry gained traction as a result of the financial crisis in 2007/08, an episode triggered by yet another corporate scandal − the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Turning the logic on its head that a lack of responsibility of leaders leads to negative (and in the case of the financial crisis sometimes globally devasting) outcomes, researchers looked at the positive outcomes which responsibility among leaders brings about. As part of my PhD at Maastricht University, my supervising professors Wim Gijselaers, Boris Lokshin and Ann Vanstraelen and I conducted a systematic literature review of the empirical studies on RL. In doing so, we discovered that responsible leaders can positively influence employees’ commitment to an organization [15] and their well-being [8] and can decrease unethical behavior [14]. Responsible leaders also impacted entire organizations in a positive way by increasing corporate social and environmental performance [5, 7, 18]. 

So, how would researchers of RL answer the above question? Quite typically to academia they would say the answer is more nuanced. Let’s revisit the scandals first: Martin Winterkorn did not see any personal wrongdoing on his part and remains absent in the courtroom for health reasons [10]. Tony Hayward said in a TV interview “There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back.”[19]. And Jeff Skilling insisted on his innocence and considered returning to the energy business upon his release from prison [2]. So, none of these CEOs pass the bar for being responsible leaders.

But what about MJ? In the documentary, the producers gave him the chance to set the record straight by asking about the quote. MJ insisted it was meant as a joke and justified his not taking a stance by explaining: “I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy.” This brings us to an important distinction researchers make with regards to the type of responsible leader someone can be:  There are those who only feel responsibility for stakeholders which are instrumental to the business purpose (so-called “strategists”) and those whose responsibility extends to all stakeholders affected by one’s actions (so-called “integrators”) [11, 17]. Following this logic, MJ would be a strategist type of responsible leader by seeing (and limiting) his responsibility to the basketball court on which he time and again showcased “his craft” by becoming the greatest basketball player of his era. Interestingly, LeBron James − widely acknowledged as the greatest player at the moment - seems to be an integrator type of responsible leader who revived what is called “athlete activism” speaking out on issues of police brutality and racial injustice [1] and coming under criticism for doing so. So maybe business leaders could take a page from the basketball book…

As complex as it is to define a leader’s responsibility, it is to measure the concept – especially at the top management of corporations. As you might have noticed, in this blog post I’ve used a lot of quotes of the leaders I looked at. This is not incidental but connects to another part of my PhD project in which my supervisors and I look at the language of leaders. MJ’s infamous quote stuck with him for the rest of his career. So, in the spirit of research on RL turning negatives into positives, maybe there are also positive language markers of responsible leaders. Let’s see if we can find them…

 

References

1.           Blackistone KB (2023) LeBron James helped revive the daring spirit of athlete activism. In: The Washington Post.

2.           Cohn S (2019) Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling wants back into the energy business. In:CNBC

3.           Gregory S (2020) Here's How Harvey Gantt Feels, 30 Years Later, About Michael Jordan Refusing to Back Him. In: Time Magazine.

4.           Hehir J (2020) The Last Dance. In: Episode V.

5.           Javed M, Ali HY, Asrar-Ul-Haq M et al. (2020) Responsible leadership and triple-bottom-line performance—Do corporate reputation and innovation mediate this relationship? Leadership & Organization Development Journal 41:501-517

6.           Lutz T (2020) Michael Jordan insists 'Republicans buy sneakers too' quote was a joke. In: The Guardian.

7.           Mantikei B, Christa UR, Sintani L et al. (2020) The Role of Responsible Leadership in Determining the Triple-Bottom-Line Performance of the Indonesian Tourist Industry. Contemporary Economics 14:463-473

8.           Marques T, Miska C, Crespo CF et al. (2021) Responsible leadership during international assignments: a novel approach toward expatriation success. International Journal of Human Resource Management:1-33

9.           Oil Spill Commission (2011) Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling, Report to the President. In:National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling

10.         Petermann J (2022) Martin "Dieselgate" Winterkorn wird 75. In: DW.

11.         Pless NM, Maak T, Waldman DA (2012) Different approaches toward doing the right thing: Mapping the responsibility orientations of leaders. Academy of Management Perspectives 26:51-65

12.         Urbina I (2010) BP used riskier method to seal well before blast. In: The New York Times.

13.         Urbina I (2010) Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig. In: The New York Times.

14.         Voegtlin C (2011) Development of a Scale Measuring Discursive Responsible Leadership. Journal of Business Ethics 98:57-73

15.         Voegtlin C, Frisch C, Walther A et al. (2020) Theoretical Development and Empirical Examination of a Three-Roles Model of Responsible Leadership. Journal of Business Ethics 167:411-431

16.         Waldman DA, Galvin BM (2008) Alternative Perspectives of Responsible Leadership. Organizational Dynamics 37:327-341

17.         Waldman DA, Siegel DS, Stahl GK (2020) Defining the Socially Responsible Leader: Revisiting Issues in Responsible Leadership. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 27:5-20

18.         Wang S, Huang W, Gao Y et al. (2015) Can socially responsible leaders drive Chinese firm performance? Leadership & Organization Development Journal 36:435-450

19.         Webb T (2010) BP's clumsy response to oil spill threatens to make a bad situation worse. In: The Guardian.

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