USA Gymnastics Demonstrates Failure at Leadership Selection in the Digital Media Age

Mary Bono, Simone Biles, USA Gymnastics, Nike, and Spencer Stuart

On Saturday, USA Gymnastics announced the role of interim President and CEO will be filled by Mary Bono. In selecting Bono, USA Gymnastics joins an unfortunate list of companies failing to conduct a basic analysis of digital media, before making critical leadership decisions. At issue is at least one post where Ms. Bono attacked Nike, a sponsor of many United States gymnasts.

Attacking Nike

In a September 7th tweet, Bono boasted about her opposition to the Nike brand. This was an apparent defiance for their support of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes of color. Nike endorses and supports athletes who speak out on harmful issues. USA Gymnastics failed horribly in this regard with Nassar. Now, the organization chose a leader who attacked a company for doing what USA Gymnastics is trying to fix. Simone Biles, the famous and beloved gymnast, responded with sarcasm at the blatant vetting failure by USA Gymnastics:

Recreation of Simone Biles Retweet of Mary Bono's Attack on Nike
Recreation of Simone Biles Retweet of Mary Bono’s Nike Attack

As the national governing body of gymnastics in the United States, USA Gymnastics claims it’s priority is serving the athletes in a manner, “committed to creating a culture that empowers and supports its athletes and focuses on its highest priority, the safety and well-being of the athletes.” Obviously, they failed in this regard with respect to Larry Nassar. In selecting an interim CEO who attacks a brand that supports athletes for speaking out against racism, discrimination and police brutality, the organization committed another leadership failure.

Digital Shadows

In my book, “Paradigm Flip: Leading People, Teams, and Organizations Beyond the Social Media Revolution” I explain it is vital to assess the social media history of leaders. It is particularly important when considering the integrity of leadership candidates:

Every candidate has a digital shadow that could reflect a positive or negative history…. …A lack of alignment to the integrity and values of your organization can hurt your movement a great deal, regardless of whether the individual is paid or not. These recruiting practices must include thorough online research, not just of the usual profiles, but of all major social media channels.

Spencer Stuart, the executive search firm retained by USA Gymnastics for the permanent replacement, may have played a role in this selection process. If they did, this decision also reflects poorly on their abilities and the expectations their clients may have of them.

Insincere Apology

After Simone Biles shared her dismay at this decision, Mary Bono deleted the original tweet and offered a lackluster apology. In her apology, Ms. Bono, with a great deal of political experience, chose her words carefully:

I regret the post and respect everyone’s views & fundamental right to express them. This doesn’t reflect how I will approach my position @USAGym I will do everything I can to help build, w/ the community, an open, safe & positive environment.

Regretting the post and regretting her opposition of a brand that defends and sponsors many of the athletes she is tasked with protecting, are entirely different regrets. Ms. Bono took the time to color out the Nike symbol on her shoes and either contort her body to take the photo herself, or coordinate with another person. She then retweeted those who shared her post and left the post online for over a month. This was a well thought out, carefully prepared attack on Nike.

Those who disagree may say we split hairs here in our assessment of her apology, but would be naive. As a politician for 15 years, and someone who is expected to lead at the highest levels of gymnastics and Olympic operations, Ms. Bono knows exactly what she is saying.

That is the point. In this day and age, executives must know how to communicate online. Board directors, executive search agencies, and those responsible for selecting leaders, must research  candidates and assess their fit, based in part on their digital profiles.

A Decision to Make

USA Gymnastics was either aware of Ms. Bono’s attack on Nike or not. Therefore, the organization must make a decision. They either apologize for their oversight, or explain their awareness and defend their position of hiring someone who attacks one of the greatest sponsors and defenders of the athletes they claim to protect.

Whatever the decision, USA Gymnastics and Spencer Stuart have to communicate it quickly. In the digital media age, they are already extremely slow in responding to this failure. The longer they wait, the more clear it is they were unaware and unprepared to address this issue.

Lesson for Others

It’s troubling to see such large and famous organizations making such blatant failures. This is especially true when consulted and guided by experts in the executive recruiting field.

Please, don’t make the same mistake. If you recruit leaders, make social media a major part of your assessment. If you see anything troubling in the digital shadow of a candidate, have a good reason for proceeding. USA Gymnastics did not, and they are likely scurrying for a quick defense, yet again.


UPDATE 2018.10.20: A representative of Spencer Stuart, from Marston Strategic Communications made it clear they have no intention of addressing the matter or their role in the process. According to Jim Horton from Marston, “…The firm cannot comment on your request. It is bound by confidentiality agreements and a longstanding policy of not talking about its searches….”.

UPDATE 2018.10.17: According to ESPN News, Ms. Bono resigned her position today, after only 4 days. The board released a note accepting her resignation. Unfortunately, this was after the board already announced their intent to support her, regardless of her attack on Nike. In addition, Spencer Stuart has not addressed their role in this process and whether they will still be entrusted to work on the next candidate search. These decisions leave US gymnasts with little confidence in the board of USA Gymnastics and their future leadership decisions.

UPDATE 2018.10.16: According to USA Today, the USA Gymnastics Board said missing Ms. Bono’s Nike tweet in their candidate selection process was an, “oversight”. That seems to be an understatement in my opinion.


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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