What Can We Learn About Leadership From Colin Kaepernick’s Protest?

By now you have all seen the images of San Francisco 49er’s QB Colin Kaepernick protesting by sitting during the national anthem at an NFL game. While I will not get into whether his position is right or wrong, there is a valuable lesson in leadership you can take away from this controversy.

Delivering a Powerful Message

At the heart of Kaepernick’s stance is he wants to see change. A noble cause indeed. Every leader of any organization wants to see change happen for the better. Most companies and leaders will spend large sums of money to bring in highly paid consultants in order to guide them through the right change.

In order to create positive change a leader must concentrate on two specific areas, clear content and effective delivery. You can have the greatest content ever created, but if no one reads it, or it is delivered in a poor manner then the content gets lost. You can also have an extremely engaging delivery, but without clear content it will soon become forgettable. You cannot have one without the other. As a good leader you want to be able to create a compelling clear message for change and then deliver it in a effective, meaningful, and inviting way.

This scenario unfolded as Kaepernick started with his delivery, by sitting down during the anthem, before anyone ever heard his message. In doing so his delivery negated his content. Afterward Kaepernick did get the chance to defend himself in an interview with ESPN. (View full transcript at http://es.pn/2bBEqOj) But by then it was too late. His method of protest was offensive to individuals disqualifying what he had to say afterwards. The old adage of “actions speak louder than words” had come into full effect.

Kaepernick was also not clear in his message. He sites “change” in his post-game transcript in police brutality, treatment of African-American’s, and the political system. These are areas most people would agree change needs to happen. But he was not clear in his message on specifically what change would look like to him. He was asked “What would be a success for you in the short term on this?” Kaepernick replied “That’s a tough question because there’s a lot of things that need to change.” Without a clear message no one understands why they should join the cause.

If you are in a leadership position then you know you could never walk into a meeting, presentation, or discussion with clients without clear content and effective delivery. When you discount a clear message with a meaningful delivery you create too much space for chaos, perception, and self-interpretation. At this point you are spending your time attempting to defend your prior statement or actions instead of moving the cause of change forward.

Traits of a Leader

When you review common traits found in leadership there are three characteristics which are important. No matter the industry Humility, Positive Energy, and Leading by Example are commonly found characteristics of every great leader. When we dissect Kaepernick’s decision to sit for the national anthem we see a deficiency of these leadership qualities.

The lack of humility is perceived in this situation by not participating in the national anthem. Heightened by the fact Kaepernick has made millions of dollars playing a game in a free country. Even though this is a “voluntary” action, it is perceived as an act of disrespect for our country and those individuals who have fought for our freedom. When you take such an action without a clear message, you are coming across as selfish. One of the common words used to describe his actions is “disrespectful.”

Kaepernick’s sitting also created a negative cloud over his message before he was even able to speak. Instead of being able to talk about change with positive energy, he had to use this energy to defend his actions. His platform had been taken away and he was unable to clearly and positively convey what he was attempting to accomplish. He immediately brought too much negative energy upon himself to clearly state his goals.

If any great leader wants change then they know they need to lead by example. They will roll up their sleeves and dig into get the work done. You are more likely to follow an individual who is working in the trenches alongside you. In reading Kaepernicks transcript it was clear he wanted change to happen. What was not clear was what he was specifically doing, besides sitting down, to insight change. We do not know if he is he working with inner city youth, is he donating to causes which would help with change, or creating an organization which would help with this process. Kaepernick may be doing all of these steps, but he did not use his time to convey this message clearly and invite people into this journey.

Kaepernick missed an opportunity to state clearly what he wanted to see change. What milestones would measure the change and not clearly showing how he was contributing to the process. What was missing was much needed leadership. No matter the circumstances, change is not for someone else to make. If you are a good leader then you will be the change you want to see in others.

Kaepernick’s decision will be his, and his alone, to own. But as leaders who want to make a change either in our lives or organizations it is important we see the ramifications of our choices and decision. Whether right or wrong, they will be perceived in a certain manner. It is up to you to create clear content and deliver it in meaningful manner. Then you are creating effective change people will want to follow.

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