Laura Guitar|May 13, 2015

The most surprising thing about DeflateGate may be the astounding polarity in opinions about the recently announced penalties against the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady.

One Facebook post suggested that we should “order the implosion of Gillette Stadium,” while others point to an absence of evidence and lack relative harm to suggest it’s all little more than media hype.

For those who may be unaware, Brady is being punished for not complying with an investigation into under-inflated footballs after an AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts in January 2015.

Certainly some of the extreme reactions can be ascribed to existing NFL loyalties and animosities. But it seems to have moved well beyond the realm of sports fans. If everyone is going to have an opinion, are there relevant learnings here for anyone other than NFL teams and their quarterbacks?

The issue is this: The NFL consistently seems not to know where its own lines of acceptable behavior are or what the penalties are for crossing them. That’s not for lack of having a rule book that anticipates every scenario – it’s a failure from the top that creates a cascade of confusion.

The reality is that there’s just no such thing as corporate ethics or, in this case, organizational ethics. People are either ethical or they’re not, and the standards for how choices are made comes from the center of any organization.

For example, consider the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the ’90s. It was apparent to me that the players were highly inclined to do the right thing – and not because they were necessarily saintly human beings. Rather, it was evidence of a clear understanding of Coach Tony Dungy’s expectations for what occurred on and off the field. There was never a question that it was more important to do the right thing than to do the thing right.

One could argue that the New England Patriots did the thing right – they won the game that got them to the Super Bowl. But there would be little controversy if they had instead done the right thing, both during the game itself and the investigation afterward.

Corporate America is no different. Leaders make choices and, doing so, must increasingly factor decisions using criteria beyond just the most expedient and profitable path forward.

Like Coach Dungy, leaders who expect their people to make the right choices must themselves be conscientiously focused on earning a license to operate in an increasingly transparent society. Often this involves employing a personal sense of justice for which there is no easy rule book or measuring stick.

The right thing can be hard to define. But there are few who would disagree that the long-term success of an organization is more important than the short-term opportunity presented by a few partially deflated footballs.


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