by Kent Sterling
I’m performing psychological acrobatics like never before in trying to understand and embrace Tom Crean’s views on leadership expressed in his piece at forbes.com.
Because I am a humane and giving person, any time I read something Crean writes or listen to what he says, I try to interpret his words positively. Sometimes, that isn’t easy.
In this case, it was impossible, despite my sincere efforts to embrace his philosophies.
I even sent the link to friends who are very smart, and perhaps not quite as jaded as I am. They were asked to read it and shoot me a quick synopsis of their thoughts. My son is smarter than I am – thank God – so I had him read it, and we discussed it as a family for an hour last night.
The co-author of the post is a very smart guy, sports attorney Jason Belzer. I was so eager to find the good in the post, I interviewed Jason on my radio show the day the post was published.
The point is, I’m trying to be circumspect prior to rendering a judgement. Generally, I trust my instincts, but in this case I felt I owed it to Crean to seriously and soberly ingest his wisdom.
Crean writes of the lessons he took from the Devin Davis head injury, how he has learned to trust his instincts in recruiting, and about the need for “emotional agility” in leadership. He talks about embracing weaknesses while ignoring self-doubt.
The individual ingredients of the post are reasonable, but their combination is strange. It reads like an amalgam of lessons learned through the reading of many, many books on leadership – all combined to be oddly unsatisfying – kind of like a chef who has taken bits and pieces from other chefs’ work to create a peculiar signature dish that baffles the palette, “Hey, paprika is great on mashed potatoes! I wonder what it’s like on vanilla ice cream, which really looks a lot like mashed potatoes, except it’s cold!”
One of the oddest parts of the post is that it’s clear Crean has not exactly been resolute in following his own recipe. He writes, “When we recruit student-athletes to Indiana, we always weigh a player’s athletic potential against his ability to recognize his emotional state and channel it in a way that will lead to a positive outcome regardless of any situation he faces. We judge him on several competencies which give us a deep insight into his character and whether or not he can help us be successful.”
A former classmate at IU and current PR executive in Chicago summed up the apparent contradiction in words and actions, “My question is if he followed all that sage wisdom and also followed the process he says he uses to recruit the “right” players, then why have so many go into trouble in the last two years and why does he feel the need to run these guys off?
“I could understand that happening in his first few years because the program was so bad, he didn’t have a lot of choice. However, he does not seem to be following his own rules of recruiting and thus you are getting all these questionable characters. This should not be happening at this point in his time at IU. His recruiting seems to be so haphazard and seems to contradict everything he preaches in the article.”
Another friend from IU who has been hugely successful in finance was unimpressed, “I don’t think we are in danger of losing CTC to Army. It is the anti-RMK. Reeks of insecurity.
“Nothing offensive, content is fine, off the shelf self help section.” Crean’s greatest lesson is that self-doubt gets in the way of potential for success. If Crean had any self-doubt, he would certainly be unwilling to share his philosophies on leadership for scrutiny by business leaders who visit Forbes.com for bits of wisdom they can apply to their business.
“Keep churning, and hope people don’t listen or read too closely” has served Crean exceptionally well in a very tough business where few earn at the level enjoyed by Crean.
The piece in Forbes opens a window into Crean’s vision of leadership. Over the last seven-plus years, the result of that leadership has been on the floor of Assembly Hall, in the classrooms at IU, and on the police blotter in Bloomington and Monroe County. Some good. Some not good.
Recruits and their parents should read the Crean post to decide if that kind of leadership is what their son will respond positively to. Fans should read it, discuss it, and then decide for themselves whether Crean is the right guy to lead a basketball program in which they have such a deep emotional connection.
Crean’s bosses should read it too – closely. And they should ask others in their lives who they respect but who don’t have routine interactions with Crean.
Comment here as you see fit, and I’ll share the results on my radio show today from 3p-6p on CBS Sports 1430 – Indianapolis.
If I’m swinging and missing in understanding and interpreting Crean’s work, it’s not for a lack of effort.