Nice Guys Finish First

When did Super Bowl coaches and CEOs start being so … decent?

Tony Dungy. Click image to expand.
Colts coach Tony Dungy

The two Super Bowl head coaches, Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts, are exceptional in the exclusive fraternity of successful football coaches. It’s not because they’re African-Americans. It’s because they’re not jerks.

For years, the archetypal gridiron coaches have been yellers like Bill Parcells, who relishes questioning the manhood of players and the intelligence of reporters, or ungracious grumps like Bill Belichick of the Patriots, who this season refused to shake hands with his former assistant Eric Mangini, after the Mangini-coached New York Jets beat the Pats.

But as Karen Crouse notes in the New York Times, Dungy is a “civilized man in a coarse profession. He doesn’t berate his players or stalk the sideline. He doesn’t spew profanity or chew tobacco.” Earlier this month, Smith, who once worked for Dungy, told the Times that he learned the value of being nice from his old boss. “We talked about how to do it, being a teacher instead of screaming and yelling, all that stuff.” Smith and Dungy are fully capable not just of shaking hands with opponents, but of hugging them and breaking bread with them. As MSNBC’s Steve Silverman writes, before Indianapolis played the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card game earlier this year, Dungy, Smith, and Kansas City Chiefs coach Herman Edwards had dinner together with their families.

Business and politics—two famously combative and competitive spheres—love to borrow from the culture of sports leadership. (Fiery former college football coach Lou Holtz spoke at last week’s congressional Republican retreat. Like congressional Republicans, Holtz had his last winning season in 2004.) And it’s clear that nice is on the ascendance in the corporate sector as well as on the gridiron.

A couple of years ago, the hot new advertising man with a first-person book on how to succeed in business was tough-talking, boorish, foul-mouthed Donny Deutsch. Today, the hot new advertising executives with a book about how to do business better are two women, Robin Koval and Linda Thaler of Kaplan Thaler. The Power of Nice: How To Conquer the Business World With Kindnessis a wholly inoffensive pocket-sized tract, complete with a yellow smiley-face on the cover, about how nice guys (and gals) can finish first, make lots of money, live longer, and get lovely book-jacket photos. It contains anecdotes about social-science research that prove people respond more to niceness than to fear and anger, and several Pay It Forward examples ofgood deeds rewarded. (Being nice to Donald Trump’s wife at a photo shoot led to a role for the executives on The Apprentice. That’s a case where nice led to dreck.)  They advise readers to take pains to exercise their “niceness muscles.” (Note to Kaplan and Thaler: For the paperback edition, please tell readers where these muscles are. I spent an hour looking for mine, to no avail.)

The nice meme goes against the grain of the long-dominant take-no-prisoners approach that views business as one long war, or football game. That’s how Jack Welch, perhaps this generation’s leading executive coach, sees the workplace. In his no-crying-zone, firing people is an act of kindness and shuffling executives around the globe every few years, their families be damned, is an act of generosity.

Welch’s tough-guy approach still sells books and inspires executives, but it’s not exactly taking the marketplace by storm. Look at the divergent fates of two of Welch’s best-known protégés. Robert Nardelli took Welch’s ethos with him to Home Depot. 

Earlier this year, after having alienated shareholders, employees, and board members with his imperious style, Nardelli was essentially fired. Meanwhile, Welch’s successor, Jeff Immelt, seems to have a much higher emotional IQ than Nardelli or Welch. He smiles a lot and says the right things about executive pay and global warming. You wouldn’t mind leaving your kids in his care for an afternoon.

Or consider the evolution of Bill Gates. In the 1990s, America’s richest man was seen by many as a cut-throat monopolist, feared and respected more than loved. He’s been reborn this decade as a cuddly mensch, bringing the same focus to curing malaria and HIV as he did to crushing rival software companies.

Now, it’s easy to exaggerate the triumph of nice. Corporate America and professional sports remain spheres in which the bottom line is all that matters. Shareholders and fans will forgive their managers for being jerks so long as they post results. But corporate culture always evolves. And among executives it is surely trendier to be culturally sensitive, environmentally conscious, and concerned about income inequality than it was in the past decade.

Why? In the 1990s, with stock ownership expanding at a rapid rate—the percentage of households owning mutual funds or stock more than doubled in the decade—Americans suddenly cared a great deal about corporate profits, since that’s what boosted stock prices. But in this decade, ownership hasn’t expanded, and it’s clear that gains are not being as broadly shared as they were in the 1990s. Meanwhile, as the stocks of gigantic companies like General Electric, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and Home Depot are having difficulty gaining traction even as they post favorable results, CEOs know they can’t be respected public figures on the basis of stock performance alone, as Welch was during the ‘90s. As shares of GE have badly underperformed the S&P 500 for the last five years, Immelt’s winning personality and eagerness to exercise his nice muscles have insulated him from shareholder wrath.

There’s a frailty to the power of nice, in business and sports. Dungy’s Colts needed a last-minute touchdown to beat Belichick’s Patriots in the AFC championship game. A fumble or an interception, and analysts would be questioning Dungy’s laid-back style. Just so, a few poorly conceived ad campaigns could cause Kaplan Thaler to lose its mojo. Immelt might find the nice-guy act wearing thin if GE continues to underperform the market. And this Sunday, in the Super Bowl, one of the nice guys will finish last.