NFL vs Trump: 5 lessons for business leaders

Not too long ago when we started to sense fall in the air, we could depend on certain seasonal institutions to take their place in our lives and foremost among them was the kickoff of the NFL season.

This year, however, political machinations, public protests, and social media have come together to create a perfect storm whose winds have blown fall traditions out the window. The events themselves and reaction of the various actors involved in creating the events have starkly illustrated some truths about human nature and the current social condition that wise business leaders will digest and use as they guide their organizations forward.

Here are five lessons on public life that you must learn and apply.

The symbolic can surpass the real. It was just a week or two before the NFL-Trump kerfuffle that Hurricane Maria virtually erased Puerto Rico’s human life supporting infrastructure. This is a real tragedy that is costing lives and billions of dollars. However, once the back-and-forth started between President Trump and NFL National Anthem knee-takers, the human tragedy in Puerto Rico was pushed off the front page.

No matter what you feel with regards to the NFL protests, the actions they take in the five minutes before the opening kickoff on Sunday afternoon games don’t change the living conditions for anyone of any color. However, what government and private agencies are doing – or failing to do – to help Puerto Rico will result in lives saved or lives lost in the coming days and weeks.

Business leaders need to understand this from two points of view: Symbolic gestures can be used to promote their companies and symbolic gestures made against their companies can be difficult to recover from.

Emotions beat logic. When people become emotional about an issue, the ability to think logically and reason well are lost. You can’t put out a dumpster fire with superior reasoning. When emotions are running high people will not listen to those on the other side.

Team members at all levels of your company must understand this because it’s key when dealing with customers and coworkers. The first thing to learn is how to avoid emotional escalation. Preventing situations from becoming emotional is one of the best skills you can have in business and in life. This means you need to sense when a situation is turning in that direction. You must be sensitive to others and know their limits.

And, when emotions begin to overrun a situation, you must be able to take the right action: either step back and let people calm down or step away and bring in another person who hasn’t been associated with the elevated level of emotions.

Being “right” doesn’t always matter. As I’m writing this, public opinion polls say that people generally agrees with the points President Trump made about the Anthem-Flag protesters. However, these polls aren’t getting a lot of attention in the media.

If you’re a business owner, dissatisfied customers can cause you a lot of grief even if their complaints are unjustified. The media focuses on the negative and people tend to remember the negative. There’s a principle that it takes 10 positive comments to counterbalance one negative comment and that holds true with publicity.

Also, when allegations against your business are made public, they will get prominent placement in the media. Later, if the allegations are shown to be untrue, that “news” will be buried.

Social media loves controversy. When we experience events like the dispute between Trump and NFL players, people grab their smart phones and start Tweeting. These Tweets are later featured in news articles about the dispute.

Sometimes you need to see social media as the cigarette butt thrown carelessly out the car window that starts the 1,000-acre forest fire. You can’t control what others say about a situation, but you should be able to control the social media communication that comes from your company.

On the positive side, sometimes you can take a contrarian point of view and get extra social media mileage out of it. Just be careful.

Highly emotional situations cause people to harden their positions. I’ve heard some well meaning people who want to examine the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities say something like this, “Well, at least people are talking about these issues.”

I’m sorry, but that’s not the way these things go. People on both sides are hardening their positions and in fact, drawing further apart. If you conducted a poll now to ask what the NFL protests were originally about, I doubt that few would say “alleged police brutality.” In other words, the secondary public relations war has overshadowed the original point protesters were trying to make.

People stop listening to each other in these situations and even forget how they got to where they suddenly find themselves. No one is well served when things get emotional.

Sometimes situations like these make me yearn for the days when information moved at a much slower pace and when fewer people had the ability to make public statements. Marshall McCluhan coined the term “global village” in the 1960s and I think that social media has made that a complete reality.

If someone insults a drive-through window worker in rural Illinois today, video of the event might become tomorrow’s globally most-viewed social media post. Not too long ago, that wouldn’t have even been noticed outside of the business where the incident occurred.

This means that, for better or for worse, we’re all living under a microscope connected to a video camera connected to a distribution system that can take our missteps and broadcast them to a world that often cheers it on when the mighty fall.

Don’t let that be you or your company.