Seattle's sports miseries: City gets what it deserves

Lou Piniella and Mike Holmgren could provide leadership, but it's not the city's style to support leaders. And look at the Seahawks and Mariners' front offices, where we have background figures and managers who administer, not lead.
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Lou Piniella walks away from an argument with an ump in 2008 while managing the Chicago Cubs.

Lou Piniella and Mike Holmgren could provide leadership, but it's not the city's style to support leaders. And look at the Seahawks and Mariners' front offices, where we have background figures and managers who administer, not lead.

The Mariners, Seahawks, and football Huskies, the big three of sports around here, have been the bad three for a while now. And it doesn'ꀙt look as if the Mariners or the Seahawks are going to be getting a lot better anytime soon. Maybe the Huskies will provide some relief in the coming season?

So with this seemingly chronic situation, speculation is inevitable. Is it something about Seattle? Is it the water? Is there some sort of curse at work? Is it the weather, all those heavy clouds?

Or is it Seattle's location, at the far northern 47 degree latitude and northwest corner of the country? That means lots of long plane trips and playing in time zones with a three-hour time difference. Maybe it is just that Seattle just isn'ꀙt "world-class" enough to be the home of big time winners? (That doesn'ꀙt seem to have been a problem for Green Bay or Pittsburgh, to name two).

I suspect there is something about Seattle that is a factor in all this. But it's not the water, weather or the location. It'ꀙs leadership.

Seattle is ambivalent about leadership. We prefer process to product. Any change requires at least six committees with various degrees of oversight (which means no one is accountable). Our mayor is a litigator not a leader. We've had a hard time actually even finding people to accept positions like superintendent of schools and chief of police. Many (all?) of the best candidates drop out after taking a good look at the situation.

If there is a common denominator to the malaise of Seattle sports, it is that they are afflicted by a lack of leadership. The Mariners are on their fourth manager in three years. With the Seahawks, it's the third head coach in three seasons. Oft-maligned quarterback Matt Hasselback is learning his third offensive system in three years (not to mention he has an O-line as effective as the Maginot Line, and no big-time receivers). There's been a lot of spin at the head office of the Huskies as well.

Beyond the head coaches, in all of these organizations it's difficult to tell if there are any leaders. Who's on first? Or are there only sports bureaucrats and managerial types, rearranging the org chart, plugging vacancies, and occupying an office?

They say they feel the fan's pain but behave as if they as perplexed as the fans about why this thing isn'ꀙt working.

There have been two relatively successful recent chapters for the Mariners and Seahawks. In both instances, the Mariners under Lou Piniella and the Seahawks in the Mike Holmgren era, the field bosses were strong, no-nonsense leaders who had a clear idea of where they wanted to go and how they planned to get there. Holmgren was gutsy enough that he told players, "If you do what I tell you, we'll go to the Superbowl."

Both were willing to shoulder responsibility. Both led. Players knew where they stood. Both experienced success.

Still, even these two, Holmgren and Piniella, found their capacity to lead hedged and limited in Seattle. Both fought repeated internal battles. Still, Piniella and Holmgren appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule.

In Seattle, we are allergic to leaders. We prefer extended participatory process, consensus, diffuse authority, redundancy, systems where it is difficult to locate accountability, and where no one takes risks or gets credit (or blame). The exception to this may be Seattle'ꀙs innovative tech sector. But they seem to occupy a world unto themselves.

At the University of Washington, President Mark Emmert appeared to be capable, and within the restraints enacted by the legislature, a successful leader. But guess where he is now? Not here. Second-year football Coach Steve Sarkisian seems to have a sense of direction and passion, but with the vacuum at the top of the UW, he may not get the backup he will need if the road gets bumpy.

These head coaches and managers are always number two people, often hired with the expectation of quick fixes. But real leadership takes time. It takes time to get the parts working together in one whole. It takes time to build a coherent culture. Often the owners pull the plug if satisfaction isn't instant.

Both the Seahawks and the Mariners are franchises characterized by fuzziness. There's no clear sense of identity or direction. Who is the face of either franchise? It's never clear, with either one, who's in charge here. The owners are background figures. The general managers have been just that, managers not leaders.

I concern myself primarily with types of organizations that are quite different from sports franchises. Religious congregations and not-for-profits are my bailiwick, but really the same is true there. Where there is strong, capable leadership (which doesn't mean authoritarianism) that has a sense of direction and the skills and courage to set sail and stay on course, things happen.

Things happen, that is, provided the organization values leadership and supports leadership. That doesn't mean giving someone a blank check or dictatorial powers. Good leaders, pretty much by definition, know how to work with and motivate people. But it does mean that there is a clear sense of direction, there are articulated core values, and there is a strategy to get from here to there. It means that someone is in charge.

Without that, without competent and courageous leadership that has enough clout to get something done, the boat sails an erratic course and gets nowhere. That appears to me to be the unfortunate point of connection between Seattle and sports hereabouts.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.