Dana White: The Baddest, Most Authentic Leader On The Planet?
Authentic Leadership is an approach or model of leadership described by Bill George, and it's but one of many perspectives on the challenge of leadership. The notion that leadership need to be "authentic" is a compelling one, because the word suggests that leaders will be more effective when they are "true" to themselves, and reveal their passions, strategies, and thought processes in an honest, and transparent way. We're going to look at Dana White, President of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), because he may very well be the most "authentic" leader on the planet who has a prominent public presence.
Background On Dana White And The UFC
If you are a mixed martial arts fan, you WILL know who Dana White is. For those who do not follow the sport, or object to its violence, you may not be so familiar. Here's a little background.
Since 2001, under his presidency, the UFC has moved from a company losing millions each year, to a profitable, high profile organizaton that dominates its niche. Particularly since the mid-decade, the UFC has exploded in popularity, and revenue.
At the head of the company is President and part-owner Dana White, who is the public face of the company. In fact he's so much the public face that it's fair to say that hardly a day goes by when he is not interviewed, quoted, or mentioned in the MMA and sports press. Not only is he an executive, but he's also part of the product the company sells.
One reason Dana is so darn ubiquitous, sometimes overshadowing even the main event fighters, is that he's charismatic, passionate, and wears both his emotions and his thoughts on his sleeve. He presents to the world a "working man's persona" that's both entertaining and easy to relate to.
His interviews and quotes are replete with F-bombs, insults, and even personal attacks on his contracted employees (the fighters), not to mention anyone else that disagrees with him. The dirty laundry of the company, and the fighters is often presented front and center. One could easily take offense at his style, and, to use one of his favorite expressions, characterize him "as a dick". Yet, one thing that does come through is that he CARES about the company, the fighters, the fans, while at the same time arguing, fighting and insulting them.
If you haven't had a chance to read or see, Dana White in rant mode, there are tons of videos and quotes available on the net. Just to choose one set of quotes, here's what White had to say about complaints about low pay levels for fighters in the UFC (as presented on mmafighting.com):
"The guys who are complaining about this are the guys that don't matter"
"That might sound f--- mean and harsh and [mocking tone of voice] ‘why should somebody not matter, everybody matters.' We're getting to where we are in a society now where, everyone wins a trophy. No, everyone doesn't win a f--- trophy. The guys who stand out and the guys who make it exciting, the guys who raise to the top are the guys who deserve the money."
"The UFC, every time we do a fight, whether its on pay-per-view or on TV or whatever, people make the decision to stay home on a Saturday night and not do anything else when there's movies, dinners, spending time with families, "White said. "There's a lot of s-- to do on a Saturday night. These people make a decision to stay home on a Saturday night and watch our show.
"We get a show with a bunch of guys who want to push against the f--- fence and stand there for 15 f--- minutes and try to squeak out a win? How many people do you think are gonna tune in next Saturday? And if this keeps continuing, this becomes f--- boxing, where guys keep running around in circles and nobody fights and you walk away going ‘this fight sucked.'"
This is one of the MILDEST examples of a Dana Whiteism. In a very short span, he insults and demeans boxing as a sport, demans, the majority of his contracted employees/fighters, uses profanity when it's unnecessary, and YET conveys his feelings and his devotion to providing the best product he can for his customers.
There may certainly be other leaders out there who are just as "in your face", but I don't believe there is anyone with a high media and public presence who does this every day, and still seems to drive his or her organization forward. Perhaps there are other leaders who are "as authentic", but from what we can "see", and often that's just what people want us to see about themselves, White IS the baddest, most authentic leader of an organizaton on the planet.
What Can We Learn About Authentic Leadership From Looking At Dana White?
Whether one likes him or hates him, and I do both, often at the same time, White is so public, and so unlike other leaders that it's worth extracting from his approach, some important realities of being authentic as a leader.
Authentic? Bullying? Or Both?
With an increased societal focus on anti-bullying initiatives, one has to ask whether White's style is, in fact a form of bullying. Certainly, the accusations have been made. For example, in a Sports Illustrated interview, former UFC fighter Tito Ortiz, said:
"I thought slavery was over a long time ago. It's just one of those things where you can't trust a word the man says. And when you can't do that, how can you work for him? When you work for a person and they're badmouthing you no matter what, how can you work for them? When you apologize for the things that did happen and he still goes behind your back and says things about you, for no reason at all. Dana's thing now is bullying and he is one of the biggest bullies in the business. He's a big bully. One of these days, karma, it always come back around."
To which, Dana replied:
"Now I'm a fucking slave master, or whatever Tito called me. That fucking buffoon. How about this fucking moron coming out and saying he was a slave. Do you even know...I shouldn't even ask that question if he knows what being a slave means, because he's one of the dumbest motherfuckers you will ever meet. Seriously. He's a slave to stupidity is what he is."
People have their own agendas, and Ortiz isn't perhaps a credible source on a number of things, but what can we learn here about authenticity and leadership?
First, that without some boundaries, and consideration of others, one man's authenticity can be another's bullying. Aggressive hostile and insulting behavior and language cannot be and shouldn't be justified in the name of being "honest". That's a self-centered approach. In fact one of the important conditions of authentic leadership, as described by Bill George is that Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine. Self-awareness means understanding oneself, but it's impossible to have that without understanding how one's behavior affects others. It's an awareness of self within the social context, and in White's case, it means getting outside of oneself to understand how others might perceive his actions and communication approach AND then assessing whether the perceptions one creates are desirable in terms of whatever goals the leader might have for himself.
Second, authenticity, as a positive and constructive leadership strategy, will never be and cannot be a black or white thing. Human beings always (or almost always) share some things, edit, censor, and react as much to situational factors as they do on the basis of their own style. We all talk differently to our bosses, friends, employees, families and modify our communication approaches almost constantly. We CHOOSE, and it's impossible to share everything in a truthful, open and transparent way. If we (and leaders) always expressed our inner thoughts, we'd probably ALL be considered abusive and judged as bullies, since we all have negative thoughts and opinions. We just don't express them all.
Is It Authenticity, Or Is It Theatre?
One thing we may never know is whether Dana White is being "truly authentic and open", or whether, in fact his behavior and communication reflects a conscious effort to present a particular image to the world. It could all be theatre. It could all be faked. We don't know. I'm not sure how we could possibly know.
Generally speaking, perceptions about a leader lie with the person doing the perception, and it's good to remember, given that there are degrees of authenticity, and that authenticity needs to have boundaries, that the intent of being authentic is probably much less important than whether a leader is perceived as authentic.
Once again, we come to the importance of leader's having an awareness, not only of what drives them, and their own motivations, but of the impact of one's behaviors.
Some Conclusions About Authenticity and Leadership
- Authentic leadership is about being genuine, but since we live in a social context, it's impossible for leaders to be truly authentic in a black and white sense. Saying everything that comes into one's head and in what ever way one chooses, regardless of context or impact on others is a recipe for disaster.
- Authentic leadership has more to do with the perceptions of those being lead, than the person doing the leading. That's why it's so important to be in touch with the perceptions of others to help moderate one's leadership behavior. It's these perceptions that help to establish the constructive limits around being authentic. And, it's contextual. A leader's authentic behavior in one organization may be considered outright bullying in another organization. Or even illegal.
- There is no way of knowing whether any particular leader is being authentic, or is simply putting forth a persona that he or she has established as part of a strategy to reach his or her goals. We simply don't have access to the inner workings in anyone's head.
This is the first in a series of articles that looks at leadership and what we can learn from Dana White's style and approach to leading the UFC. Coming soon:
When Leaders Become Distractions
Will Dana White Become A LIABILITY For The UFC
Should You Emulate Dana White In Your Own Leadership Behavior?
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