What You Can Learn When an Organization Falls Apart

It is not often that you see an organization come apart at the seams on television. But that is exactly what happened in February when the head coach of the Detroit Pistons got thrown out of a game and the players on the bench laughed.

It is not often that you see an organization come apart at
the seams on television. But that is exactly what happened in February when the
head coach of the Detroit Pistons got thrown out of a game in Philadelphia and
the players on the bench laughed. Like all organizational implosions, this one
had been building for a time and so when it came to a head it was more pitiful
than unexpected.


As removed as NBA basketball may be from real life, it is
worth examining the reasons for the Pistons dysfunction because they are not
unique to professional sports. We see them all too often in the corporate and
public sectors. Not long ago the Pistons were an exemplary team; they were in
the NBA Eastern Conference finals for six consecutive years, and won the NBA
title in 2004. Detroit fans loved the players and its management for its
workman like approach to the game; few stars just a lot of discipline and hard
work. All that is lost now and so let’s examine what happened.

One, no leadership at
the top
. Karen Davidson is the owner. She inherited the team when her
husband, William, an octogenarian billionaire entrepreneur/philanthropist died
in 2009. She has shown little of the passion for the team that her husband did
and to her credit has tried to sell the team. Her preparations for sale,
however, have hampered the team’s competitiveness because she seems unwilling
to invest acquiring the right players and the right coaches.

Two, poor
decision-making in management
. Joe Dumars, the president and general
manager, was twice voted the NBA’s executive of the year and deservedly so. In
years past, he put together a set of players who played as an ensemble, each
one willing to do what was necessary to win. He also hired good coaches,
notably Larry Brown who coached the team to a championship. Dumars also fired
Brown the following year when it was clear that he had lost the trust of his
players. But since that time Dumars has selected poorly in the NBA draft and
traded away key players who might have helped the team remain competitive. In
fairness the failure of ownership to pony up for good talent has hindered


Three, weak front-line
John Kuester is a first-time head coach; his career has been as
an assistant. Based on team’s performance on the court and their comments
expressed off it, the players show him little respect. When seven of them
failed to show up on time (or at all) for a shoot-around, Kuester benched them,
leaving the Pistons with only six players available to play. It was in this
game that Kuester was ejected.

Four, undisciplined
Richard Hamilton was once considered a key player but since late
last year he has been benched. Recently it was reported that Hamilton lost his
temper at a practice and berated the Kuester in front of other players. This
insubordination eroded team with veteran backing Hamilton and younger players
siding with the coach. The net result is dispirited play and mounting losses,
including one game to the league’s worst team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Five, fan malaise.
Not surprisingly fans are not supportive of the team. Attendance has been
declining, not simply because of the poor economy in Southeast Michigan, but
also because the fans are unwilling to spend their hard earned dollars on a
team that has given up on itself.


These five factors are not the sole reason for the Pistons’
demise but they go along way toward explaining how a team on top could fall so
quickly. Jim Collins cites what he calls the Gerstner Philosophy (in reference
to Lou the CEO who rescued IBM) in How the Mighty Fall,“The right leaders feel a sense of urgency in good times
and in bad, whether facing threat or opportunity, no matter what.”

Every manager who cares about his team and his organization
needs to be vigilant against complacency but also against thinking that bad
things cannot happen to good organizations. Of course, they do, and that is why
savvy managers should do that they can to instill leadership, groom tough
managers, instill on performance, and hold everyone accountable for results.

The status quo is unacceptable; total renewal is the only
path forward.


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 newest book is
Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead
. (Amacom 2010). Readers are welcome to
visit John’s website,