Tom Brady, 'Deflategate' and the Lesson for Business Leaders

The unfolding scandal of under-inflated footballs and a Super Bowl played on a very cold day is a sobering reminder that reputations are frail and not easily restored.

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By Brian Fielkow

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As we all know by now, investigators hired by the NFL concluded last week that it was "more probable than not" that New England Patriots personnel intentionally deflated footballs below minimum league pressure standards and that their star quarterback, Tom Brady, was "at least generally aware." There seems to be two schools of thought around this scandal. One has concluded that the New England Patriots are systemic cheaters. The other dismisses deflategate as the Patriots simply cutting a corner or engaging in a small and insignificant lie.

The Indianapolis Colts warned the NFL that the Patriots were going to deflate the footballs prior to the AFC championship game. In the Colts' email to the NFL, GM Ryan Grigson said: "All the Indianapolis Colts want is a completely level playing field. Thank you for being vigilant stewards of that not only for us but for the shield and overall integrity of our game."

Since deflategate, Brady has steadfastly denied his role in the scandal. Yet, during the investigation, he was not forthright with the investigators. Brady answered questions voluntarily but declined to make available communications, including texts and emails.

If you're a business leader, there are some lessons to learn from deflategate you should apply to your career and your company.

Avoid the asterisk.

Most importantly, how we, as leaders, manage our careers is a large part of our legacy. In the end, our most important asset is our integrity. Is there anything that really makes it worthwhile for a leader to compromise his or her integrity

Whether we are a star athlete or just starting out in business, we must personally commit to a set of core values that we will never compromise. Tom Brady will retire from football as one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks, but there will now be a permanent asterisk by his name. The power to conduct our careers as leaders without an "asterisk" is in our control alone.

Related: 10 Steps to Building an Impeccable Professional Reputation

The size of the lie does not matter.

When leading your company, do not overlook the tiniest of lies. If you tolerate one lie, you might as well tolerate an infinite number.

If you have a customer service failure, admit fault quickly, apologize sincerely and then fix the problem. Customers are too smart. Like most observers of deflategate, customers can cut through the smoke and mirrors to determine if you have integrity. Your customers have choices and ultimately will do business with companies who share their values.

Never let anyone force you into the wrong decision.

If you are an emerging leader and believe that you are being asked by your company to compromise your integrity, call a time out. No employer or supervisor has the right to ask you to compromise your personal integrity. If you cannot fix this immediately, you have no choice but to resign.

Don't let anyone throw your integrity -- your most valuable asset -- into the landfill! Doing otherwise could tarnish your reputation and severely threaten your future growth.

Similarly, if your employees are not living by your company's values, leaders cannot look the other way. An individual employee's lack of integrity reflects on your organization and you personally, if you condone that behavior. If you discover an integrity issue in your company, you must address it immediately and completely. Looking at deflategate, it is hard not to ask if there is something in the Patriots' culture that condones this type of behavior. Perception becomes reality, and that can kill your reputation.

As a premier NFL team with a loyal fan base, the Patriots will recover from their latest scandal. Do you or I have the same luxury?

Related: 3 Simple Questions That Can Derail Your Reputation

No celebrity justice.

Let's be sure that we are not administering "celebrity justice" in our companies. Celebrity justice means that leaders look the other way or administer small penalties when star performers violate our core values. The penalty is mild relative to what a normal person would receive.

Do you administer celebrity justice in your company, allowing the star performers to get away with what a regular employee would not?

It's not the crime, it's the cover up.

The Patriots were going to win the AFC championship without tampering with the footballs. Nixon was going to win re-election without Watergate. Why do certain people think that they are above reproach? There comes a time when certain people reach a level of success and believe their own headlines. They think they are beyond reproach and that the public is too stupid to understand they are being lied to. As an example, Tom Brady's interview with Jim Gray on May 7 was an unbelievable display of arrogance.

The lesson for leaders is to stay humble, no matter our level of success. We are not above the law or public scrutiny. When things go wrong on our watch (and they will), have a plan to deal with them transparently. The cover up will sink you faster and deeper than the incident itself.

Related: 4 Basics for Building (or Repairing) Your Personal Brand

Brian Fielkow

Business Leader, Author, Keynote Speaker

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. 

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