Leadership in Athletics: The Bad Apple Effect

What happens when an elite performer becomes a “bad apple”? It would be easy to label Antonio Brown, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers looking to be traded, as a “bad apple” — but would it be an accurate assessment?

Brown has a growing list of transgressions that range from alleged verbal disputes to alleged altercations at practices. He has also accumulated a long list of accomplishments, including being named to seven Pro Bowls as well as six straight seasons of 100+ catches and 1,200 receiving yards. NFL teams are now trying to decide if Antonio’s on-field production is worth his off-the-field distractions. They are also trying to figure out if he is a “bad apple” or a part of a toxic system.

A “bad apple” is a team member whose negative attitude or emotions are contagious and ruin the rest of the team. “Bad apples” are way too common and can be found in all industries or on all different kinds of teams. They have to be removed before they ruin other team members. We all know at least one bad apple, but can we put Antonio Brown in this category?

Leadership research has also taught us a lot about toxic systems where a toxic person is just the tip of the iceberg that illuminates a much bigger problem. Insight from Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin hints at a toxic system within the Steelers organization:

“We'll tolerate it now because of what he brings on the field, but the minute production stops, you don't overlook it.”

Toxic people thrive in toxic environments. The team culture created by Coach Tomlin suggests an improper and toxic reward system. Individual accomplishments (catches, yards, touchdowns) in the Steelers organization are tolerated at the expense of team chemistry and organizational accomplishments (wins).

The environment set by Coach Tomlin may have enabled Brown’s actions. Under Coach Tomlin’s leadership, Antonio Brown is untouchable as long as he produces on the field. Leaders must be careful and make sure they are addressing the problem and not just the symptoms.

At the end of the day, “bad apples” are contagious and toxic employees may be just a sign of toxic systems. Do you see any of this within your organization?

Photo Credit: Keith Allison 

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.