Leadership, Mob Mentality & Ron Wilson

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


I have long admired Brian Burke; Ron Wilson not so much – I’m more the players’ coach type. (I realize that I’ve just contradicted myself, Brian Burke is hardly the ‘players’ coach type’.) Certainly, though, in terms of thinking about leadership, the firing of Leaf’s coach Ron Wilson is worth pondering. Here’s a view with which neither Burke nor many others will likely agree.

I get advised all the time on the power of ‘consensus leadership’. There’s a strong belief that real change – unless you have a ‘consensus’ among the management team and the employees – is doomed from the get go. I’ve never bought that. Wrenching, difficult change is never accepted by most but rather opposed. By the time you get everyone’s agreement, if you are lucky enough to still be pointing generally in the right (or any) direction, you will not be acting nearly boldly enough. You can’t be both a fan of consensus leadership and an admirer of Steve Jobs.

What happened in Toronto went one step further. Certainly, a public consensus formed that Ron Wilson had to go, but when the crowd at the ACC started chanting ‘Fire Wilson’, consensus thinking began to morph into mob mentality, where thinking is suspended. Answer this: If Ron Wilson had been transported into the middle of that chanting crowd, would he have been safe? Or would the chanters, embarrassed at their behavior, have stopped chanting. Either way, it’s evidence of a mob mentality. Burke didn’t lead, he followed (in disagreement, methinks). And he didn’t follow the consensus, he followed the chant.

You may say that they are the paying customer, frustrated by years of failure. I respond that no-one believes that a Stanley Cup team will be built by popularity polls, management by fans, or – in the case of the Leafs – a chanting mob. No-one would ever suggest that shareholders should be able to tell the management team what to do, whom to hire or fire, etc. Sell your shares, stop buying Leaf tickets, but don’t think that you get to run the joint.

I can neither see through Brian Burke’s eyes nor feel his pressure; I’ve never coached. I did not think Wilson’s contract should have been renewed, but when those fans chanted, I thought ‘he sure can’t fire Wilson now’. And then he did. When Burke says he couldn’t put Wilson in front of the ACC fans again, I respectfully disagree – he had to do exactly that. Now, he has ceded at least part of his leadership, and he has whetted their appetite. You can almost hear it ... ’Fire Burke, fire Burke’…

Maybe it was the right decision. But arguably it was made for the wrong reasons and to me, certainly at the wrong moment. At the very least, it was a very interesting and difficult leadership quandary.