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In Unstable And Serious Condition

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, October 10, 2009

Forget all the subtle analysis about what the latest moves by the Washington Redskins signify. What's going on is plain: Management is sabotaging the head coach.

The hiring of Sherman Lewis as an "offensive consultant" is a naked insult to Jim Zorn and his staff, as Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and his functionary Vinny Cerrato well know. The only possible effect it can have is to rob Zorn of authority and sow confusion and dissent in the locker room. Their attempt to frame it as a benign offer to bring in "another pair of eyes" is a charade. In fact it's a clumsy move, carried out by a management that fosters back-channeling instead of team building.

"I'm just not sure this is the way to run a big time professional franchise," Hall of Famer John Riggins said on his Twitter account.

Seconded.

The hiring of the 67-year-old Lewis from a bingo hall is a perfect snapshot of what's wrong with the Redskins. None of us knows the inner workings of the Redskins organization; all we can work from is the public result. But even from that standpoint, observing the Redskins this week was like looking at an MRI, a resonance image of their decade-long malaise. What ails the team appears to be a preexisting condition: The administration apparently fosters division, infighting and chaos.

"Quite candidly, in 2009, things go bad, somebody's got to go under the bus," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said last week, shortly before he went mum. That told you all you needed to know about the bad air in Ashburn. But if you needed any more evidence, then came the disclosure that Clinton Portis really did try to throw Mike Sellers under the bus, requesting Sellers be benched, which led to a locker room quarrel that ended with both men having to be restrained.

You might ask, what exactly does the front office expect the fresh eyes of Lewis to perceive in all this mess? Lewis was a superb assistant coach in his day, but he has no clear duties except to look over Zorn's shoulder. Asked what Lewis's actual job will be, Cerrato replied, "They'll get that figured out here in the next day." Asked what Lewis had been doing in the five years he's been out of football, Cerrato stammered, "Uh, ah, I don't, professionally."

Zorn frankly admits he never had a conversation with Lewis before he arrived. Can you imagine the awkward introduction?

Zorn: Who are you?

Lewis: Mr. Snyder hired me. He said the offense needed help.

Zorn: Aren't you a little old to play right guard?

Stability works; instability doesn't. There is evidence of that all across the league. Three teams fired their offensive coordinators before the season even began: Buffalo, Kansas City and Tampa Bay. What did it get them? A combined 1-11 record. Scapegoating doesn't fix problems; it exacerbates them, as Zorn, to his credit, knows. His backing of Jason Campbell despite three interceptions last Sunday, which paid off with a victory and a 2-2 record, was not just the smart thing to do; it was a stroke of healthy leadership.

Why doesn't Snyder seem to know all this? Why do the Redskins continually make the same management mistakes? One possible answer is they suffer from something called "toxic management." Denial and refusal to accept criticism are classic hallmarks of it, and so is shifting blame to others.

Toxic management is not just a term; it's a pathology, and experts have written books about it. The leader in the field is Roy Lubit, a member of the faculty of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and the author of "Coping with Toxic Managers and Subordinates." According to Lubit, toxic managers are "rigid, aggressive, self-centered." They're also divisive. Some of the indicators: bullying of subordinates, impulsivity, inability to concentrate and moodiness. Also: a record of grievance filings by employees, customer complaints and high staff turnover. Toxic managers actually prefer tension to stability, because it's a demonstration of their personal power.

It's impossible to know Snyder's true motives because he doesn't grant interviews during the season. For clues, all we have are Cerrato's public rationalizations, such as his attempt Friday to suggest that hiring Lewis was actually Zorn's idea.

"I give Jim a lot of credit for bringing a guy, you know, wanting another set of eyes, because we have struggled some."

How's that for blame-shifting?

Lewis: These young receivers never seem to run the right way.

Zorn: That's what I keep telling them.

Lewis: Who evaluated and drafted these guys?

Zorn: (silence)

Lewis: Jim? Jim?

The turmoil at Redskins Park is familiar to LaVar Arrington, once a close friend of Snyder's and now an embittered ex-player. Arrington's criticism of the Redskins should be taken in context, given his hostility over a contract dispute, but it's worth listening to because it's based on inside-the-clubhouse experience. On his radio show Thursday he described a classic dynamic of toxic leadership: He suggested that Snyder is intentionally undermining Zorn, because he's disenchanted and impatient to make a change, and predicted that certain players will be "in on this." True or not, Arrington's suspicions indicate the level of paranoia Snyder creates in Ashburn.

According to Lubit: "Toxic managers divert people's energy from the real work of the organization, destroy morale, impair retention, and interfere with cooperation and information sharing. Their behavior, like a rock thrown into a pond, can cause ripples distorting the organization's culture."

Ring any bells?

Unfortunately, for Zorn and his staff, the experts say there's only one effective way to deal with a toxic manager who is ruining a company.

Leave.

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