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What Leaders Can Learn From the NFL's Draft of the First Openly Gay Player

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The NFL is about to be put to the test. The 2014 draft begins May 8 and all eyes will be looking to see if an organization picks Michael Sam, who would become the league’s first openly gay player.

Michael Sam/Twitter
Michael Sam

But it remains to be seen whether any NFL team is ready for a player like Sam, as The Washington Post reported. NFL insiders, members of the media and ordinary fans have raised concerns -- and objections -- fearing that an openly gay player won't mesh with locker room culture.

But whether it’s the NFL or a business, how well any organization functions in the face of change is determined by the strength of its culture. In a vibrant culture, people and processes function in harmony with shared values. While most business don't operate under the bright lights of a professional sports stadium, the challenges are similar and CEOs can learn something from this moment.

So what can CEOs do to build a culture that can support their organization through periods of transformation?

Related: What Mozilla's Chief Forgot About 21st Century Leadership

1. Embrace and accept change. The culture of a workplace -- whether in a locker room, a corporate office, a store or on a production floor -- is constantly evolving and diversity should be embraced. What seems radical today will be an afterthought tomorrow. When Jackie Robinson joined major league baseball, racial integration was controversial. Today, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could have opposed No. 42 or the racial integration of professional sports.

In Sam’s case, it’s irrelevant if an openly gay player would have been accepted in a locker room 10 or 20 years ago. What matters is what's accepted by society at large today and what is right. Organizations continue to change, even if the pace is gradual. The worst thing a leader can do is be afraid of change.

1. Lay ground rules. An organization’s culture is what enables members of a team to carry out their mission, whether the goal is securing a championship ring or a profitable bottom line. Determining a company’s values is essential to building its culture. For Michael Sam’s team, respect and tolerance should be among the initial values to be reinforced. In sports and in business, the leadership has a responsibility to articulate principles, weave them into the culture and ensure that they are nonnegotiable.

Related: On Becoming That Truly Inclusive Leader

2. Build rapport.  Not everyone on a team will accept change at the same rate or level of enthusiasm. The only way a team can be successful, however, is if all players bear mutual respect for one another. The same goes for a business. Leaders must spend time facilitating situations so everyone can develop bonds in small groups and across departments. Developing channels of communication is essential for employees as well as between employees and management so that healthy relationships are established. This is especially true during periods of change.

3. Get A-players onboard first. As leaders and coaches prepare to transform their organization’s culture, some team members may resist the effort. Smart leaders recruit their A-players -- or opinion leaders -- to the mission first, so others will follow suit. In Sam’s case, many high-profile professional athletes have supported his entry into the NFL, and this will certainly facilitate his acceptance by others. All businesses have opinion leaders; sometimes they don't carry big titles. Find the opinion leaders. Work with them to drive change.

Related: What Donald Sterling's NBA Blowup Teaches Entrepreneurs

4. Pressure creates opportunity. No doubt any team that picks Michael Sam will be challenged not only to perform but to transform the NFL’s culture. When leaders are under pressure, innovative ideas are sometimes hatched that then change entire industries. Being fired by Apple and branded as a visionary with poor business skills was extremely difficult for Steve Jobs. After this crisis, he reinvented himself and returned to Apple with new focus and a vision that literally changed the world. Leaders under pressure can forge a better company, if they’re not afraid of risk.

5. Convert consumers but accept that not all will be won over. Culture is what sets a company apart from its competition. It gives customers -- or fans -- a way to bond with the organization. The leader of a team that drafts Michael Sam will decide its culture is ready to accept and embrace change. That will spill over and allow the team to expand its fan base. Watch for brisk sales of Michael Sam jerseys, even outside the team’s geographic market.

That said, a small handful of fans may be slow to accept an openly gay NFL player. But leaders should define and articulate a culture that's built for the majority. Not everyone will be pleased, and it would be fruitless to try to do so.

To succeed as a team or business during periods of upheaval, leaders and coaches alike must set a nonnegotiable declaration of standards, strategically recruit respected advocates to their cause, maintain the passion of team members and embrace rather than fear the change ahead.

Related: Diversity Defines Our Global Economy. Do You Speak the Language?

Brian Fielkow

Written By

Corporate culture and management advisor Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies. With a doctorate in law from Northwestern University School of Law, he serves as owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a logistics company in Houston that specializes in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight.