Roger Goodell Should Read This New Study on Leadership and Empathy

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a Super Bowl XLVIII news conference at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 31, 2014 in New York City.
Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It’s been a bad few weeks for Roger Goodell. The NFL commissioner is facing a serious threat to his job as a result of the Ray Rice domestic-abuse scandal, his handling of which has raised all sorts of questions about his qualities as a leader and executive. Though the release of the terrible video of Rice striking his then-fiancée Janay Rice caused the scandal to explode, the original source of the anger toward Goodell is the two-game suspension he levied against the Ravens running back. At the time, the only video of the incident that had been leaked to the public was of Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancée out of a casino elevator — the ugly aftermath of his assault.

Two games is, by the standards of the NFL’s disciplinary regime, a light punishment, and many interpreted the sentence as a signal that the league doesn’t care about issues pertaining to domestic violence. How could Goodell not have anticipated this response? An article just published in Social Psychology & Personality Science offers one hint: Good leaders, it argues, are effective at taking the perspectives of other people. Bad leaders — that is, those most likely to bungle difficult situations, leaving almost everyone unhappy — aren’t.

To the press release, from Columbia Business School:

 The study shows that the powerful—imagine CEOs, politicians, military commanders, sports commissioners etc.—who are conditioned to see the world from someone else’s point of view produce better outcomes.

Effective leadership is like a successful car ride. To go places, you need gas and acceleration—power is a psychological accelerator. But you also need a good steering wheel so you don’t crash as you speed down the highway—perspective-taking is that psychological steering wheel,” said Adam Galinsky, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business Management at Columbia Business School. “When you anchor too heavily onto your own perspective, and don’t take into account the viewpoints of others you are bound to crash.”

The researchers point out that there’s something of a catch-22 at work here: The more power someone attains, the rustier their perspective-taking skills are likely to become (“I’m the boss! My perspective matters the most.”), and the poorer a job they will do leading.

So did Goodell anchor too heavily onto his own perspective in his original handling of the Rice incident? Not enough information is public to conclusively state he did. But at the same time, it shouldn’t have taken a Ph.D. in psychology to realize a few things:

• people were going to be viscerally horrified and outraged by the initial video — they were

• people were going to quickly compare the two-game suspension issued to Rice to the four-game suspensions often issued to NFL players for smoking pot (until a just-announced change in the rules) — they did

• victims’ rights advocates (and decent people in general) were going to react angrily to the Ravens’ repeated use of Janay as a prop in the campaign to rehabilitate Rice’s image, up to and including a tweet in which the team stated that she regretted her role in the incident — they did

• after the second video was released, people were going to react to Goodell’s claim that the league had never seen it with furious skepticism and/or furious questions about why a league valued at tens of billions of dollars apparently has inferior investigative clout to TMZ — they did

What almost every blunder along the way has in common is that they could have been prevented by Goodell pausing and asking, in a genuine, good-faith way divorced from his perception’s of the league’s short-term financial and PR interests, “Hmmm, what would a domestic-violence victim or victims’ advocate think of this? How about an average fan?”

Even though there’s a lot we don’t know about Goodell’s handling of this scandal, it would be hard to argue that he’s done a good job of perspective-taking.

Roger Goodell Should Read This Leadership Study