Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 16, Issue No. 3a
July 1, 2017
By Dan Coughlin
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Defining a Hero
To me, a hero is a person whose decisions and behaviors are worth emulating. A hero is someone to aspire to be like and to even go beyond.
Heroes, exemplars, and positive role models are important in organizations and in society. They raise the bar for others to try to reach and exceed. Heroes help societies and organizations to continually improve.
I’m starting to believe we need a new wave of heroes for people to emulate. Many of my heroes have fallen down and acted in ways that are not worth emulating.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s I used to watch the Fat Albert cartoon series and listen to Bill Cosby comedy albums. He was so funny and his timing was so great that I would laugh until I cried.
I’m not laughing anymore, just crying.
When I was a sophomore in college in 1982 about twenty students I knew would stop studying for an hour from 8 – 9 PM on Thursday nights. We would all crowd into a dorm room to watch The Cosby Show. It was a funny and inspiring show about two professionally successful parents who raised their kids in a loving and firm manner to go after meaningful goals. I loved that show.
When I was in my 30s, Bill Cosby came to St. Louis and admonished our community to be better parents, to take education more seriously, and to work hard to become successful. I admired his courage to be serious about serious topics.
The jokes are no longer funny, and the admonitions are no longer credible.
He has openly admitted that while he was married he gave other women pills to “relax” in order to have “consensual sex” with him. More than 35 women have told stories about this repeated act where they would pass out and wake up to him interacting sexually with them, and their stories happened over a 35-year period of time.
The whole thing intensely disgusts me. These incredibly sexually predatory actions could have been toward my wife, daughter, or sisters by some pervert. Bill Cosby was one of my heroes for a long time. Not anymore.
Last week I heard a great comment about consensual sex. It was, “If the other person is incapacitated, then it’s not consensual. If the other person is so drunk or drugged that he or she is incoherent or unconscious, then it is not consensual.” That sounds pretty darn straightforward to me.
Here is a short film on consensual sex, or the lack thereof, that I encourage you to watch:
Tea Consent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGoWLWS4-kU
It’s not perfect, but it does make a powerful point.
In 1988 I read a book by Rick Pitino called Born to Coach. It was a riveting story about how hard work and the ability to motivate other people generated incredible results. He talked about how as a player he practiced free throws over and over again. He talked about how he coached the tiny Providence College to the Final Four. He challenged them to put their hearts out on the court and give it everything they had to give. I became a big fan of his.
Ten years later as I thought about leaving my career as a high school math teacher to start my own business I read his book, Success is a Choice, and I loved it. His point was that any of us could choose to focus on a particular type of work, work tremendously hard at it, and become successful.
Year after year I cheered for him and his teams to succeed. He coached the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Louisville.
And then came what I consider to be his most important leadership moment.
One of his assistant coaches had brought high school basketball recruits on to the University of Louisville campus and guided them to the basement of a dormitory. There the assistant coach had paid strippers and prostitutes to sexually entertain the recruits in the hopes of luring them to the University of Louisville. This went on for four years.
When the news story broke and the NCAA decided to punish the University of Louisville by suspending Rick Pitino for five games and threatened to take away one of their national championships, Pitino became irate and said the penalties were far too harsh because he knew nothing about what had happened during those four years.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is the leader that I had admired for so many years, and he’s denying the responsibility of leadership in his most important moment. What’s going on?
An organization’s culture consists of commonly-held beliefs that drive consistent behaviors. In his books Pitino constantly talked about the importance of the leader. I distinctly remember him saying, “Who motivates the motivator?” He talked about that leaders always have to have a purpose that drives them, and that the leader is key to the organization. The leader is responsible for the culture of an organization.
If the leader is responsible for the culture of an organization and a culture is made up of the beliefs that drive consistent behaviors, then how is the leader not responsible for those consistent behaviors? Whether he knew about the strippers and prostitutes is not the point. The point is he is responsible for the culture of the organization, the way people consistently act. This went on for FOUR YEARS. This was not one night of wild partying and bad decision-making. This was a consistent, well thought-out act that was carried on for FOUR YEARS.
To me an effective leader would have said, “I did not know this was going on. However, I am responsible for the culture of this organization, and somehow I’ve built a culture where people felt it was okay to pay strippers and prostitutes to entertain our recruits on our campus for four years. Many more than just one person knew this was going on, and yet I’ve created a culture where no one was willing to tell me about it. Therefore, I will accept any penalty that the NCAA wants to give me. And I will try harder in the future to strengthen our culture.”
But he didn’t do that. Instead he blamed the NCAA for being too harsh. Huh? At a public university high school players were supplied on campus with prostitutes and strippers who were paid for by a university employee for four years. How is the penalty too harsh?
I no longer emulate Rick Pitino. The walk does not match the talk.
When I was growing up I loved to cheer for the Penn State football team. The uniforms were plain and had no names on them. Their coach, Joe Paterno, walked around in tan khakis, a button-down white shirt, big glasses, and old-fashioned coaching shoes. He talked about teamwork and fundamentals and the importance of getting an education. He said the library was one of the most important buildings on campus, and he donated millions of his own dollars to improving the library. He was my favorite coach of all. I cheered like crazy when his team won the national championship in 1986. He seemed to be everything that was right about college coaching, and about trying to bring out the best in other people.
Then a few years ago a story started to unfold.
Paterno had learned that one of his top assistant coaches was naked alone in a shower in the Penn State locker room with a young boy who was also naked, and had pushed him up from behind against the shower wall. Paterno reported to the athletic director what he had heard, and let it go at that. He felt he had done his duty. He then allowed that assistant coach to continue to be in the locker room for many more years. He later said that he had no idea that a man could rape another man. He couldn’t fathom it.
Wait a second. Let’s think about that one.
From 1977 – 1984 I played high school and college soccer. After every game we players took off our uniforms, jumped into the showers, soaped up, rinsed off, toweled ourselves dry, and put different clothes on. There was never a problem.
However, I’m very, very confident that if one of us had seen an adult coach naked in the shower pressing himself up to a naked young boy from behind that we would have instantly known that something was very, very wrong. We wouldn’t need a book to explain to us that something evil was going on.
But somehow Joe Paterno did not pursue the matter. He did not confront the assistant coach and tell him to stay out of his locker room. He did not pursue the issue with the athletic director to make sure that something significant happened as a result of this heinous act. He just simply carried on as though he had done everything he could do.
Another hero vanished for me when I realized that.
Heroes are Not People Who Fail to Take Responsibility
I understand we are all human, and we all make mistakes. I get that. I know no one is perfect. I get that. I know no one should throw a stone. I know you’re not supposed to point your finger at someone else because there are always three fingers pointing back at you. I get that.
But at some point enough is enough. As a society we need people that we can emulate. We need heroes. Not just ones on tv shows or in films, but actual, real-life people who can consistently behave in a way that we will want to emulate them.
I think we need to elevate our standards to something that people can want to emulate. After listening recently to Rick Pitino on tv after the NCAA decision and watching the updates on the Bill Cosby trial, I’ve decided it’s time to say something.
We Need You to be a Hero
The world needs you to be a hero, to be someone that other people can emulate. Your organization and your community need you to take responsibility for your own actions and the actions of other people in the organizations, or the parts of organizations, you run.
If your standards slip or the cultures you are responsible for slip, then stand up and take responsibility for what has happened. Don’t say, “The other person said it was okay,” or “I didn’t know anything about it.” If you want to lead, then lead. If you want to be a hero, then admit when things have gone really, really wrong, and try again.
Stop passing the buck and placing the blame on other people. That’s not heroic.
This series of articles is called The Any Person Mindset for a reason. The whole point is that any person can be a hero. You don’t have to be rich or famous or powerful. Just be the kind of person every day whom you would want others to emulate, to try to be like and to go beyond.
We really, really need real-life heroic people in our organizations and in our society more now than ever before.
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