Jon Gruden's Downfall

Gruden never built trust with his players, nor did he monitor himself.

When we leave our high-powered leadership positions — especially if we’re fired — we often view the development as career-ending.

But it can also be career-building if we learn the right lessons.

Jon Gruden, who resigned this week as Las Vegas Raiders head coach after a trove of his offensive emails was released, spent almost 10 years away from the game he so desperately loved after being fired in 2009.

But many of the weaknesses that led to his dismissal from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers then were never addressed — and they came full circle this week.

The 2018 book Gridiron Genius explores the four areas needed to be a successful coach:

  1. Management of Attention

  2. Meaning

  3. Self

  4. Trust

Gruden’s undoing in the end was a result of mismanaging the latter two. He never built trust with his players, nor did he monitor himself. According to Gridiron Genius:

Gruden has incredible communication skills, but he walks a tightrope in the areas of command of self and trust. In large part, that is a result of his internal motivation mechanisms. To hear him tell it, Gruden, the new coach of the Raiders after a first go-round in the league a decade ago, never has enough offensive talent for the schemes he has devised. Without fail, the last team he coached was more talented than his current one. How do I know this? I was with him in Philadelphia when he was the offensive coordinator and I was the pro personnel director. He would walk around the office complaining, “Can you believe I have to play these guys?” before rattling off names like Ricky Watters, Charlie Garner and Irving Fryar. By all accounts, those guys were at the very least competent pros, and some were far better than that. But to Gruden’s eyes, there was always something wrong with each of them.

When I moved on to Oakland, he was there too—and, believe it or not, giving the exact same speech, with a twist. This time he let it be known that the talent he coached in Philadelphia was far superior. Even when Gruden was being interviewed by TV production crews as background for Raiders’ nationally televised games he would complain about his lack of talent. A member of an announcing team finally called him out on it: “Jon, you do realize that Rich Gannon is having an MVP season?”

That’s when I realized Gruden told this no-talent story to himself as motivation to work harder and smarter. Problem is, that’s not exactly the best way to develop trust and mutual respect with your players, and eventually, that method backfires. If he were better at this part of the job and better at fixing things instead of complaining about his roster, he could be one of the greats. If he hasn’t learned that lesson, he’ll end up flaming out in Oakland again just like he did after winning a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay.

Clearly, Gruden didn’t learn from his past. His lack of self-awareness, fueled by his ego, made him feel invincible with his words and actions. He was able to secure a 10-year, $100M dollar deal from the Raiders because often the people doing the hiring don’t understand the four dynamics of leadership and how they must all be aligned —perfectly aligned.

There are many lessons from the entire Gruden fiasco. We must do complete self-analyses to improve our areas of weakness. And we can never allow our egos to grow so large that we believe we’re untouchable and can just say whatever we please.

Whether Gruden will finally self-reflect in the months and years ahead or ever change his ways remains to be seen.

But one thing is for certain: He needed to make adjustments to his leadership behavior while he had the time to reflect years ago.

Instead, he remained the same and, ultimately, flamed out.