What Leaders Can Learn from Marshawn Lynch

Seattle Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch has a reputation for snubbing reporters, and he’s been fined for that behavior in the past. So to prevent Lynch from stonewalling during the pre-Super Bowl media day held yesterday, the NFL threatened Lynch with an even bigger fine if he did not show up and respond to questions.

Did Lynch comply? Absolutely he did. But Lynch complied to the letter of the law only, not the spirit.

I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” Lynch replied 29 times from the podium.

Which made me laugh for longer than the 4 minutes and 51 seconds he repeated that line over and over. Heck, I wish the NFL insisted that Lynch spend 10 minutes with reporters, because I’ve read that a 10 minute laugh is as good for the body as 10 minutes of running.

Lynch demonstrates a point that all great leaders learn eventually:

Compliance creates defiance

My mother used to send us three kids upstairs to take a bath every Saturday night so we would be all “sweet-smelling” for church the next day. She’d say, “Get up there and get your bath” to us one at a time. My sister, the only perfect child in the whole lot, complied happily. My brother, on the other hand, didn’t particularly like having his play schedule interrupted every Saturday night. But just the same, he grabbed his pajamas, closed the bathroom door, and filled the tub with water.

And then he sat. On the closed lid of the toilet seat. For about 5 minutes.

But he was smart. So he got the soap wet, splashed a little water on the floor, drained the tub, wet his hair slightly, and put on his PJs before bouncing down the stairs full of smiles.

In fairness to my brother, he “got his bath,” in a way–albeit not a way that demonstrated commitment to personal hygiene.

Eventually, though, my perfect sister caught him and ratted him out, a pattern that continued until…well, for all I know she still does that sort of thing today.

But the point is that my brother complied to the direction of my mother…but only to a certain level.

3 Tips for Securing Compliance Without Defiance

1. Have a dialog, not a monolog. The NFL ordered Lynch to show up on media day, take the podium, respond to questions, stay put for at least 4 1/2 minutes. Lynch complied in a hilarious, defiant way.

“I need you to…” is that kind of one-sided order that someone with power says to someone with no power. Think school teacher to student, parent to child, guard to prisoner, etc.

Instead of barking orders as if you were talking to an underling, try saying, “Here’s what I’m thinking….” Then say, “I’d really love to get your thoughts on this.” This type of dialog helps you to surface any underlying issues that could prompt token compliance (and defiance) instead of true buy-in that comes when we’ve been heard.

2. Be prepared to negotiate. In the case of Lynch, you may recall that not long ago Lynch told a reporter, “I’m all about action, Boss.” I wonder what would have happened had the NFL negotiated with Lynch to forgo the mandatory 4 1/2 minute Q&A and instead read a one-minute prepared comment about what actions to expect from him on the playing field? Perhaps the NFL, Lynch, the media, and the fans would all have won.

When you treat people like kids (“Do this or else!”), they act like kids (“I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”). Instead of spitting out mandates and must-dos, be willing to take less than 100%.

3. Avoid power struggles. Ironically, Marshawn Lynch got more media attention by his hilarious, stonewalling answer to reporters than he would have gotten had the NFL made media day voluntary and had Lynch stayed home. Who really won here?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, boss, or the NFL–if you must keep adding threats and negative consequences to get compliance, you are in a power struggle. And when you’re in a power struggle, you might get someone’s hands, but not his heart. Be willing to cut your losses instead of digging in.


Only a select few jobs and career choices require 100 percent, no-questions-asked compliance–such as roles that require you to maintain a Top Secret clearance. Most of the time, leaders can avoid the compliance-defiance trigger by having dialogs with employees instead of issuing mandates, by demonstrating a willingness to negotiate, and by avoiding power struggles as a counterproductive trap.





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