Adam Silver & Alan Mulally

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Adam Silver became commissioner of the National Basketball Association on February 1, 2014 succeeding David Stern. It was a passing of the baton that was not a defining moment.

Silver’s defining moment, as we all know came on April 29, 2014, when he banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the NBA for life. Further he fined Sterling $2.5 million, the maximum allowed under the NBA Constitution. Plus, Silver recommended owners expel Sterling as owner of the Clippers.

In that moment, Silver protected the game, the players, and set a moral level for the owners to meet. Also, in that moment, the commission of the NBA was no longer thought of as “the new guy who replaced David Stern.” The commissioner was decisively Adam Silver.

And it was decisiveness that catapulted Silver into being the shining example of dignity – and what we call the “Tone at the top.”

The “Tone at the top” originated in the field of accounting. It is used to describe a general ethical climate, as established by its board of directors, audit committee, and senior management.

Silver’s actions set, or reinforced, the “Tone at the top” at the NBA. He has held the league to the highest of standards.

He also drew a line in the sand. He revealed that people who play out of bounds must live within the boundaries of the dignity of the NBA. He also showed that uncertainty is bad; and clear, concise definition is heralded by all.

His actions became the message.

While Silver was seizing the moment to take the lead of the NBA, Alan Mulally was passing the baton at Ford to Mark Fields, its new CEO.

Mulally successfully turned Ford around and was able to engineer a smooth succession to Fields. Fields said, “It’s an honor to follow and build on Alan’s legacy.”

But Mulally did more than just create a legacy; he defined a culture at Ford. It has been reported that Mulally’s “One Ford” business plan gave the company a central focus.

One Ford focused on One Team, One Plan, and One Goal. It set a “Tone at the top” and a direction and vision for Ford to live up to well beyond the tenure of Mulally.

Through Silver and Mulally we are seeing leaders who create and uphold cultures bigger than themselves.

For each their defining moment was doing the right things in extreme circumstances. Mulally righted a ship; Silver did the right thing. Each was brave and strong.

And that is true leadership.

[Photo Credit: Cliff on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]

This post appeared on the LinkedIn Influencer page of Gary Burnison on May 12th, 2014 and can be viewed there by clicking here.
Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive talent management firm. He is also a New York Times best-selling author, having written three books: LEAD (Wiley 2013); The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership (McGraw-Hill 2012); and No Fear of Failure (Jossey-Bass 2011). Burnison is one of less than 300 top voices selected to be a LinkedIn Influencer, allowing him to be followed by LinkedIn's 225 million+ members and to write directly on the LinkedIn Influencer platform.