Maryland Football Death – Where Did Leadership Fail?


Power of 3 Leadership Paradigm

Tragedy Strikes

Recently, a tragedy occurred in the University of Maryland football program.  Jordan McNair collapsed during a training session and subsequently died.  The University acknowledged responsibility for the death.  They launched investigations into the events leading to Jordan’s death and into the culture of the football program. The University Regents recently released their report on the culture of the Athletics Department associated with this tragedy.  Where did leadership fail?

Leadership Examination

It is not possible to know with certainty all the factors contributing to his death.  Enough is known to discover multiple failures of leadership. Let’s examine the situation using the Power of 3 Paradigm from the top down.


The top level is achievement.  The University wanted a football team to compete at the highest levels of the Big 10 conference.  This was an audacious goal.  But in Jordan’s case, the leadership of the University failed catastrophically.  Rather than assist him to become stronger, faster, tougher, and more fit, they chose to belittle him, punish him, and separate him (and others) on the team for abusive physical and psychological treatment.  Too many “leaders” believe that isolating, belittling, and punishing is an appropriate means of “motivating” people to do better.  It is not.  And those that administer this “motivation” rarely accept it as effective when applied to themselves.  It is hardly a model of assist, inspire, and depend as seen in the Power of 3 Paradigm.


The second level deals with challenges that leaders must address to perform at the achievement level.  These are dealing with missed expectations, driving despair out, and dealing with ethical conflicts.

It was obvious what the expectations were.  Run faster, be stronger, have greater endurance, etc.  Those were not being met by Jordan.  Did the leaders determine if they had provided Jordan with the knowledge, tools, time, and resources to achieve those expectations?  No, they assumed that he didn’t want it bad enough.  And they punished him for it.  It is unlikely that Jordan came to the Maryland football program to slack off and diminish the team.  The leaders failed to assess if Jordan knew how to meet the expectations and had the ability to do so.

So, they dogged him.  They did not provide an environment where Jordan could improve.  They drove, despair into his life and  succeeded beyond measure.  The isolation, humiliation, and punishment meted out had no chance of helping him meet expectations. He was unable to perform the brutal physical requirements.  And he jeopardized his own health in doing so.

The leaders instituted the dangerous conditions.  They also failed to provide protection from the inevitable consequences.  They created an ethical conflict for Jordan and those charged with assisting him to perform the brutal physical activity that could injure or kill him.

The Probability Laws of Leadership are:

  1.  Anything that can happen eventually WILL happen if given enough opportunities to occur.
  2.  Leaders cannot change Rule #1.
  3.  Leaders can influence the scenarios

Contingencies were not in place, personnel were slow to respond, assistance was summoned too late.  At no time was and Jordan’s health  the paramount factor in the process.  There were always “other” things that were considered first.  When an ethical conflict occurs, there are no winners. There are just choices that individuals (and leaders) must make.  And each has difficult consequences.  The first option is to fix the conflict.  No one at Maryland tried this approach.  The second option is to accept what can’t be changed.  The peril of this option is that when events turn tragic, there is no recourse for those who accept the situation except to also accept the consequences.  Jordan accepted them, the leaders demanded it, and the support staff acquiesced as well.  And tragedy occurred.  The last option is leaving the situation.  No one chose this option although they all had the opportunity to say, “The emperor has no clothes on.” and walk away.  But none did.


The final level of the paradigm is the foundation.  This is where the traits needed to be an effective leader reside.  They are honesty, courage, and talent.  Once again, leadership failed catastrophically.

Honesty is the ability to see the world AS IT IS – not as we wish it to be, not as it should be, not as it could be.  The situation was dangerous, and leaders opposed opportunities to mitigate the danger.  The opportunity to separate physical training and safety organization from the coaching organization existed.  The desire for competitiveness in the Big 10 overrode the need for protecting the athletes.  The leaders failed to see the inherent dangers because they wanted to see the world the way they wished it to be, not the way it was.

Courage is the ability to overcome fear to act on behalf of others without regard to the consequences to yourself.  No one had the courage to stand up for Jordan or others like him.  Competitiveness in the Big 10 mattered more than his safety.

Talent is knowing how to do something, having the capability to do it, and having the perseverance to hone the skill and ability.  Obviously, the administration and coaches at some sports at Maryland knew how to do this because there were national champions there.  But the football program was a long way from where they desired it to be.  They hired a coach from a school with recent high-level success but with no head coaching experience.  It was an open question whether the skill and perseverance needed were there.  The lack of honesty noted above allowed their hope to override their view of the world as it was.

Where did leadership fail?

So, where did leadership fail Jordan McNair?  EVERYWHERE!  What is surprising is not that it occurred.  What is surprising is that so many were shocked that it could occur.  When the foundation is broken it is difficult to properly handle the challenges.  When the challenges are not dealt with, it is impossible to achieve.

Why are we shocked?

The answer is simple.  An outcome-based approach to the exclusion of how the outcome is obtained causes leadership to fail catastrophically.  This is the timeless dilemma of “the ends justify the means.”  Sometimes it does.  Often it does not.  And in this case, it was catastrophic.

Look at how we develop the foundation traits (see honesty discussion above).  Talent development takes up most of our time.  In this case, athletes who are stronger, bigger, faster to be more competitive.  Outcome based thinking.

Improving honesty or courage gets little attention.  Every athlete can recall their wins/losses and their highlight plays.  Coaches too.  But who can tell you what grade they earned on their Honesty 101 final exam?  Who can tell you their score on their capstone project in Courage class?  No one, because we don’t bother to teach, coach, or exercise those foundation capabilities.  We assume they are satisfactory.

It has happened before, and it will happen again unless we change the way we lead.  Because anything that can happen, will happen, if leaders don’t change the scenario.



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