Leadership Lesson: David Brandon at Michigan

Leaders do not always get to choose the issues they will face. Sometimes they need to put out the fire before they can move forward. 


Leaders do not always get to choose the issues they will
face. Sometimes they need to put out the fire before they can move forward. 

Case in point is David Brandon, newly appointed athletic director
for the University of Michigan. In February prior to his taking office, Michigan’s vaunted
football program was hit with an NCAA investigation into major violations about
excessive practice time that occurred under the watch of head coach, Rich
Rodriguez.  Michigan held a press
conference to address how it would respond to the investigation and Brandon
announced his support for the controversial coach. He reiterated that support in late May when the school announced its self-imposed sanctions.

Brandon himself is no stranger to managing tough issues. He
served as CEO of Domino’s Pizza from 1999 until March 2010. His management
philosophy combines operational discipline with stakeholder collaboration. Domino’s
prospered under Brandon’s tenure and he was well-liked by employees. Brandon’s roots at Michigan run deep; he played football for legendary coach, Bo Schembechler, and in recent years served as a regent for the university.


The biggest problem facing the football program is really
not the NCAA violations; it is the rift over Rodriguez. Since Rodriguez has won
only eight games in two years, losing twice to arch-rival Ohio State and
missing the bowl season for the past two years, many fans dislike him. Yet
Rodriguez’s players, and many students, support him. How Brandon has dealt with
the controversy is a lesson in leadership.

Own the problem. Brandon
did not become the athletic director to become proctor for the football team,
but he is realistic. As he told the media after announcing self-imposed sanctions,
there is nothing good about the words investigation and probation. Regarding
Michigan’s brand, Brandon says, “I don’t think it’s a black-eye, it’s a
bruise.” He also said blame for the excessive practice time was a departmental responsibility, not simply a coaching issue. By addressing the problem head on – and with total transparency —
Brandon will ensure that whatever went on prior to his watch has been stopped,
new measures to ensure compliance have been implemented, and the program will

Make decision best
for the situation.
Rodriguez is a polarizing figure: love him or hate him.
Brandon as the athletic director has not allowed himself to become embroiled in
partisanship. He leads the entire department, not a fan base. How he treats
Rodriguez sets the tone for how he will treat other coaches now and in the
future. To date he is taking a measured approach, waiting for NCAA
investigations into Rodriguez at Michigan as well as his previous coaching job,
West Virginia, to be completed.  Since
neither academic fraud nor paying players to play at Michigan is suspected,
Brandon can take the wait and see approach.


Evaluate later. Accountability
is essential to leadership. Brandon will hold Rodriguez more responsible than
ever before. If Rodriguez’s on field performance does not improve significantly
(and Brandon has wisely not assigned the number of games the team must win), he
will be gone. Wins and losses at Michigan are not everything as they are at
other schools; integrity is paramount. So Rodriguez must demonstrate that not
only can he win, he must do so within the rules.

No athletic director wants to deal with problems from the
previous administration, but in the case of Brandon failure to address the
problem would only have worsened it. In months and years to come, Brandon will
have plenty of time to address key priorities such as maintaining academic and
fiscal integrity as well as shepherding in a new era of intercollegiate
competition, should the Big Ten conference expand into a mega conference with some
fourteen or sixteen teams. How Brandon handles the Rodriguez issue may well set
the tone for addressing future challenges.

John Baldoni is an
internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach,
author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s
top 25 leadership experts. John’s new book is 
Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up
(Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website,