After the Cleveland Browns once again embarrassed themselves and their fans with a performance as pitiful as any in the 2.0 era, I cleansed the palate by heading to the movies to see Steve Jobs. It’s an excellent movie but what it tells you about the Browns is probably more useful than the latest iOS update.
The point of Jobs was more or less made late in the movie when Jobs and his former partner, Steve Wozniak, were engaged in a heated discussion prior to the launch of the iMac. With Apple in transition following Jobs’ return and on the verge of laying off hundreds of workers, Wozniak wanted Jobs to acknowledge at the iMac launch the contributions that the team that created Apple’s initial signature computer, the Apple II. Wozniak wanted it as a gift to those being laid off, letting them know, and by proxy the remaining employees, that all contributions are valued. Jobs refused because, in many ways, Jobs was an abrasive prick who valued virtually no one’s input or contributions but his own. In disgust Wozniak leaves the auditorium as he tells Jobs that life isn’t binary. You can be both a decent human being and a genius at the same time.
That pretty much sums up the frustration I think most Browns fans have with this franchise. It is only binary. It’s either one thing or the other but never all it ought to be at the same time. And until it figures out that it needs to be all it can be at the same time, there really is no meaningful path forward, just more meandering.
The other thing that struck me about Jobs was the fact that the company ultimately became wildly successful despite the toxic culture that emanated from the top. Jobs was an unrelenting asshole most of the time. He wasn’t demanding but fair. He was unreasonably demanding and often unfair. Undoubtedly that culture had to permeate the organization. Subordinates do follow the leader.
But the strength of Apple’s products and Jobs’ vision overcame all the cultural headwinds he deliberately inflicted on that company although it’s also fair to note that Apple failed miserably and was on the verge of shutting down because of Jobs as well. It was only after the products, not only the iMac but more importantly, the iPhone were introduced and literally ushered in one of the single biggest technological advances that the products could overtake whatever toxic culture had otherwise existed.
For the Browns, however, there is literally no chance of a similar change on the horizon. In the first place, there is absolutely no geniuses anywhere in the organization or otherworldly players whose skills and abilities can transcend an otherwise toxic environment. There are, however, various shades and colors of fools. That wouldn’t be so bad if those fools were otherwise functional and creating an environment where the organization could otherwise thrive. They aren’t and that combination is how you end up with what amounted to a legal mugging in St. Louis on Sunday.
Culture usually matters. Most companies spend countless hours and dollars on building and maintaining a good corporate culture because in life some things simply don’t change. The only real way to get a behemoth of any sort moving in the right direction, be it a billion dollar corporation or a NFL team is teamwork. Every oar has to be moving in rhythm with the other and in the same direction.
Executives get training on leadership and culture. These are learned skills and they and, perhaps outside of the most recent iteration of Apple, among the most critical to an enterprise’s success.
Jimmy Haslam owns the Browns and perhaps the best you can say about him is that he’s still learning to be an owner. He hasn’t yet corralled all the things he still doesn’t know. On any given day and perhaps on most days he discovers something new about the hobby he undertook that spins him in still another direction.
But even as he’s trying to figure this all out, there is considerable question as to whether or not he’s setting the right tone at the top. In his short tenure as the team’s owner, he’s been impetuous and often knee-jerk in his approach. He’s already had two of everything and he’s likely to be on his third set of managers very soon. The legal problems related to his main business still aren’t fully behind him and, ultimately, are his responsibility. Those dog both him and this team. Haslam may be able to credibly argue that he neither knew or actively participated in the fraud that enveloped Pilot Flying J, but he cannot credibly argue that there was something about his leadership, about the expectations he laid out and the demands he placed on others that didn’t in whole or part foster a culture where others felt that engaging in the fraud they did was an acceptable means of servicing his demands and expectations.
It’s similar to what happened in New Jersey with Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge. He may not have directly told any of his minions to close the toll booths in Fort Lee in order to snarl traffic as punishment to that town’s mayor who wouldn’t endorse him, but he most surely created the culture that gave others the idea to do just that. Anyone who has spent any time in New Jersey knows that Christie is a vindictive blowhard with significant inadequacy issues. When he doesn't get his way, he bullies the perceived offender by leveraging his position to delay all sorts of government services. So when Christie wasn’t getting his way from the Mayor of Fort Lee it wasn’t much of a leap for his top advisors to concoct an inelegant and dangerous scheme in retribution. Christie may have had plausible deniability on the underlying act but the culture he created is as culpable for what happened as anything else.
In the same way, the University of Louisville is confronting issues of culture when it comes to head basketball coach Rick Pitino. It’s hard to imagine that Pitino would ever directly approve having an assistant coach essentially run a strip joint out of one of the dorms in order to entice top level recruits to matriculate at Louisville. It’s just as hard to imagine that he would not have immediately shut it down had he direct knowledge of what was taking place.
And yet Pitino’s continued service with the university should still be in question because the most salient question that has to be answered when it comes to him is whether he fostered a culture that directly contributed to what ultimately did take place. Did Pitino’s intense desire to secure the best recruits and keep them from arch rival Kentucky so that he could win National Championships give his assistants the kind of green light where they thought that unethical and/or illegal conduct was an appropriate way to achieve those goals? Time will tell. That investigation continues.
These are lessons, some very hard, on the same point. Culture matters and the Browns do not have a winning culture. You could cite chapter and verse about why that is, particularly when you consider the last decade plus of history. Wrong hires. Bad draft choices. Disaffected owners. The point remains: every new Browns regime talks a good game about creating a winning culture. None have had anything resembling the ability to get that done. It still isn’t.
Haslam can fairly be viewed as a guy running a business where key employees have been definitively found to have played fast and loose with not just the rules but the law. Ray Farmer, his handpicked general manager, is fairly viewed by those who work for him directly (his staff) and indirectly (the players) as having an ego that far exceeds his accomplishments and as being someone who likewise doesn’t’ mind playing fast and loose with the rules, which led to his suspension. Then of course he’s also someone who is objectively lousy at his job. Head coach Mike Pettine is a well-intentioned but ultimately raw and inexperienced head coach who is fairly viewed as being completing inept at corralling the team’s most outsized personality, Johnny Manziel.
When you combine that level of dysfunction with a team with the worst culture in the NFL before they arrive and then you sprinkle in the marginal talents on the field, results like Sunday’s inevitable beat down are, well, inevitable.
Haslam will reboot again come season’s end. He’ll have no choice. But that reboot will be no more successful than his last two because what he never addresses is what he must address first, culture. It does matter.