One day early in my career I remember having lunch with my boss. We were discussing the latest political sex scandal and how the politician was handling it. As was his nature, my boss turned it into a teachable moment. He commented on how sad it was. “A man spends his entire life building up his reputation. And in a moment of weakness, he destroys it.”
No longer a role model
We both knew that there were probably a multitude of weak moments, but his point was made. We both wondered why someone who spent so much time and energy developing a public reputation –a personal brand as we call it today – would ruin it with such self-destructive behavior.
I knew that my boss wasn’t really being sympathetic for the disgraced politician. He was trying to impress on me the value of developing a reputation, maintaining it, and the ease with which it can be destroyed.
Another role model fallen
The memory of that lunch has come back to me over the years as I’ve seen public and private reputations fall due to some moments of weakness (aka selfish stupidity). But none of them has brought it back with such clarity as I watched the fall of Joe Paterno and the Penn State University football program over the past year.
As a fan of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, I follow the Big Ten Conference. (I follow the Cubs too, so when one of my teams wins, it’s cause for great celebration.) I always respected Joe Paterno and liked – or at least thought I liked – what he stood for. His public persona was about honor and loyalty. The football program was built on the motto “success with honor”.
As we now know, the honor that they touted was a house of cards. They maintained a facade of honor while covering up terrible secrets behind the scenes, resulting in ongoing abuse that might have been prevented.
And so it goes. Another one bites the dust. Someone I placed on a pedestal, only to see that they weren’t who I thought they were.
So what’s a person to do? It’s supposed to be good to have role models and mentors. We turn to sports figures, politicians, bosses, parents, peers and even strangers trying to learn from them. Maybe Charles Barkley had it right in his controversial Nike commercial when he famously stated I Am Not a Role Model (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMzdAZ3TjCA).
Role models aren’t perfect
There was a cynical period at one point in my career when I realized that nearly every mentor I had followed was a flawed individual. One turned out to be a womanizer. Another was abusive to his staff. Others had lesser flaws. It just turned out that they weren’t as perfect as I thought they were. They weren’t “pedestal-worthy”.
I eventually came to realize that I could still learn from them despite their flaws. Each of the mentors I’ve followed had some skill that I felt was worth learning for myself. Some were very good in developing relationships with clients. Others had great leadership skills. Each was worth emulating for some positive attributes. For their flaws, I was able to glean valuable “what not to do” lessons. There’s no crime in learning from others’ mistakes, is there?
So what can we learn from Joe Paterno? I think the biggest lesson is “Walk the walk”. He talked the talk for years, yet hid terrible crimes to avoid tarnishing the reputation of his football program. Ironically, his actions contributed to causing even greater damage to his own reputation, as well as the reputations of that program and the school that produced it.
Paterno, for me, has transformed from mentor to someone whose mistakes I can learn from. It does me no good to judge him. He was who he was. Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson and Richard Nixon can all teach us lessons from their successes and their failures. Learning from someone does not mean deifying them.
As for that boss I had lunch with, after all these years I still haven’t found any flaws in him. He’s one of the few mentors I’ve had who may still be pedestal-worthy.
What were the traits of your favorite role model?
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As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.