3 Things Joe Dumars Taught Me About Accountability

“As a leader, there’s no job too big or too small that I won’t do myself.”

Cody Royle
Jan 29 · 4 min read

Basketball Hall of Famer Joe Dumars is one of the NBA’s most iconic leaders. Not only did he play a pivotal role in guiding the famous “Bad Boys” to two titles, he returned to the Pistons as President and General Manager to build a championship-winning team as an executive as well.

Recently, Joe and Adam Grant joined me on my podcast (I’ll share what I learned from Adam in another blog), and the three of us went deep into the virtues of humble leadership.

In listening back to the episode, I’ve realized that Joe’s answers routinely touch on the theme of accountability, and that didn’t change whether he was talking about his playing career, front office career, or his new role as President of Basketball at sports management firm ISE.

Here are three things Joe Dumars has taught me about accountability:

“Sometimes, if you pass on recruiting the temperamental guys, you’re passing on the chance to win a championship.”

If you spend long enough on LinkedIn you’re bound to come across Reid Hastings’ quote: “Don’t put up with talented jerks, the cost to teamwork is just too high.”

But Joe thinks the idea of passing on supremely talented players because they’re tempremental is a little too simplistic. “My test,” he says “is if I think that person has the ability to adjust to our way of doing things. It’s rare that you’d find 10 or 12 guys who were all perfect for our culture.”

Joe continued, “Take Rasheed Wallace, who still holds the record for most technical fouls in an NBA season. When I wanted to trade for him I was told he’d disrupt everything we had built, but I was able to talk to him and make him understand this is bigger than him.”

Wallace turned out not to be a distraction, joining the team mid-season in 2004 and helping the Pistons win the NBA Championship against the heavily favored Lakers. Wallace ended up re-signing and the team returned to the NBA Finals the following season.

Recently, the general discussion around team building in the corporate world has bordered on groupthink: Don’t hire anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to your culture! But how do you expect to actually execute on that when a) your candidate has never seen your culture in action, and b) you’re unsure whether your candidate is humoring you at the interview in order to get the job.

You’re taking a risk either way.

I agree with Joe — you can’t make a blanket statement that you won’t hire a talented jerk. If you want to be championship-level, sometimes you have to take a flyer on someone who others deem disruptive (Randy Moss, anyone? Eric Cantona, anyone? Dennis Rodman, anyone? Buddy Franklin, anyone?)

In addition, I believe much of the narrative around talented jerks is designed to indemnify leaders of actually having to get into the nitty gritty of leading and making difficult decisions. But if your talented jerks respect you (or someone in your organization), you’re a real chance to be able to unleash their otherworldly talent. If they don’t, you’re in for some sleepless nights.

But to reiterate — that’s what leadership is.

“What the leader does always trickles down.”

A lot of leaders are skilled enough to recognize that their team is underperforming, but aren’t self-aware enough to know that the core problem is them.

As Joe poignantly adds, “If the top is in it for themselves and are making selfish decisions, that is always going to trickle down.”

Often, this plays out when leaders set cultural or performance guidelines for the team, but the leader themselves has no intention of adhering to those same standards. “We can implement whatever culture we want, but if the top person isn’t living it day-in and day-out, it’s never going to take hold” Joe adds.

Being a leader is like being the parent of an infant: they are watching you every single day and picking up on your behaviour, how you treat others, and how you react to situations. If you’re behaving like a lunatic in front of your child, you’re going to produce a lunatic. If you’re leading like a lunatic in front of your team, you’re going to produce a team of lunatics.

“Stand up in front of the group and own it.”

Towards the end of the show, Joe told us about an accountability system that they used when he was a player in Detroit. “Before the start of the season, we had to stand up in front of the group, every player, every coach, and give two things that we could count of from them for the entire season.” And they had to be specific, not generic, Joe adds.

Those personal commitments to team-mates were important, and were more powerful because they weren’t top down instructions from the coach. Those commitments were used to guide the behaviours of the team throughout the season. Because no-one wanted to let the team down, each player and each coach worked their ass off to make sure they held up their end of the agreement.

“If a coach told us he wouldn’t let us lose to a final second shot, that he’d know what set plays were coming, he’d stay up all night to not let us down,” Joe adds.

This exercise is adaptable to almost any workplace, and can be repurposed for both operational tasks and project work. Heck, it could be repurposed for a work week, or even a day.

“You guys can count on me for…”


Where Others Won’t

Author and podcaster Cody Royle explores the crossover of leadership between sports and business.

Cody Royle

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I study how teams create sustained success | Where Others Won’t | Head Coach of AFL Team Canada | Avocado Toast Aficionado | #altMBA

Where Others Won’t

Author and podcaster Cody Royle explores the crossover of leadership between sports and business.

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