Keeping Score? The Ferguson Aftermath

“If we are playing for fun, why keep score?”

-Al McGuire, Coach

 I am saddened in equal measure by the Ferguson Grand Jury’s proclamation and the opportunistic reaction of roving bands of thieves and thugs bent on pillage, not protest. The nagging question for me is “who provoked whom?” Did the Grand Jury’s decision give the thieves and thugs the excuse they needed to break into businesses in their own community? Or did the video of Michael Brown in the convenience store pocketing cigarillos unduly influence the Grand Jury’s deliberations? What role did the media play in reducing a convoluted situation into a simplistic “white cop kills unarmed black teenager” scenario?  Having some experience with the media, I know that the media does not pick sides—it creates sides. Setting an antagonist against a protagonist sells more magazine copies, brings more eyes to TV and computer screens, and improves ratings and circulation. As Marshall McLuhan concluded, “the medium is the message.” Videos are powerful mini-movies that capture a point in time and can be interpreted by a skilled lawyer to represent the exact opposite of what it captures. For example, both Brown and Wilson were the same height—six foot and four inches tall. However, young Brown was much heavier.

Lost in all of this kerfuffle is the avoidable death of an unarmed Michael Brown, Jr. and the rationalization or demonization of Officer Wilson’s action. As a parent, I am sure that Michael’s mother and father would rather have their son alive than an indictment of Darren Wilson for his murder. Whether you are a Black or White parent, somewhere in your heart you must empathize with the Browns. Michael Brown, Jr. is dead. He did not have a chance to explain, defend or justify his behavior or actions.

Tragically, Darren Wilson has become a pawn in a sinister game of racial finger pointing. Some will conclude that the Grand Jury’s refusal to indict him is tantamount to rendering him innocent. On the contrary, the effect of the Grand Jury’s decision was to raise questions about his innocence. Unfortunately, too many of us see the race issue as a game ball that we kick around. I still cringe at the now faded and grainy video images of blacks celebrating the OJ Simpson verdict. As the British would say, I was gob smacked.  I kept thinking about how OJ’s legal team was able to transform his image from a multi-millionaire golden boy celebrity without a racial identification into an oppressed black man being railroaded by a racist criminal justice system.

We Americans—all of us—are hooked on keeping score in this game of racial tag. We tend to socialize with people who agree with us, listen to and watch only the media pundits and solicitous politicians who reinforce our racial beliefs and stereotypes.  No pun intended, we see issues regarding race in terms of black and white. We do not want a drop of grey to seep into our black and white realities. We are trapped comfortably in our own perceptions of reality. The thick bands of insulation we have built up around our perceptions insure that no contradictions can enter our mental framework. However, only through contradictions can we grow and learn.

One undeniable contradiction is we have more in common than we are willing to admit. We are first and foremost human beings. We have the same physical design, the same emotional make up and the same physiological processes. Some of us are taller, heavier, faster or stronger. Still, we all feel pain, joy, fear and love—the color of our skin, notwithstanding. I remember reading an interview with a mixed race pro athlete who asked his black father why he married a “white woman”? His father replied, “I picked her. God painted her.” With this simple and profound response in mind, I submit that we must internalize the fact that our color is secondary to our humanity. The Michael Brown Jr. and Darren Wilson and the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman tragedies (along with too many more similar situations) should teach us that the loss of an innocent life and the demonization of another is a painful human experience that diminishes each of us. We must start the process of breaking free from our prisons of racial perceptions. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

Let’s open these doors by 1) viewing each human life as having value, 2) looking at each situation from the perspective of our many roles such as grandparent, parent, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, cousin, nephew or friend, 3) abandoning the score keeping mentality that racial hatred requires, and 4) having the audacity to operate out of love for—versus fear of—each other. I am sure that Michael Brown Jr. did not get up on that fateful morning planning to get into a confrontation with a white policeman. And, I also suggest that Darren Wilson’s To Do List did not include killing an unarmed black teenager. Yet whatever provoked the situation was not serious enough to result in killing another human being. This is why an open and transparent proceeding should take place so that we all can learn from this encounter. To be found not guilty is not to be found innocent.

To become so numb to the loss of human life for the sake of winning an argument is barbaric. My fellow Americans, we are better than this.

TRUST OR NOT TO TRUST?

As a student and teacher of organizational behavior, I have always been intrigued by the role a leader plays in galvanizing people to rally around his/her vision. The literature on leadership is replete with examples of different styles, approaches and philosophies adopted by successful leaders. By inference, it is suggested that all one has to do is study, learn and adopt one of these styles to become an effective and successful leader.

We have been introduced to the Authentic leader, the Corporate Mystic leader, the Situational leader and the High EQ (emotional intelligence) leader. By putting forth Diamond Leadership (one who is both a directional and servant leader) as another effective style of leadership. I have added to this list in my book. All of these styles are legitimate and can be effective, if practiced with sincerity—and in the appropriate context. Still, to be truly effective, leadership must go beyond styles and dive deep into the area of substance.

Substance is built upon one simple, yet profound, concept, i.e., Trust. Regardless of what leadership style you employ, without trust that style will not be effective over the long haul. People, your employees, will eventually see through the style mask. If they conclude that your real essence is something other than the style you lead with, they will not commit to you or your vision. In a word, once they no longer trust you the gig is up. They will still hear you but will not listen to you. They will still work with you, but not for you. Trust is the industrial strength glue that bonds the leader with their people. Gaining trust takes a long time. Losing trust can happen in an instant. Regaining trust is a monumental undertaking. Trust is not a question of style. It is the result of being consistently truthful and impeccable with your word. Trust flows from character.

Character is whom you really are deep down inside. It is the combination of values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that define you at rest—when there is no audience or others to impress or manipulate. Character traits are revealing behaviors that expose your hard wiring. For example, a leader or person who likes to be in charge may have the following character traits: know-it-all, rude, pompous, conceited or bossy. Character is foundational for building trust. Flowing from a good character is Integrity.

Years ago, the New York Times newspaper had a one-page insert that proclaimed, “If you’re good when nobody’s looking, that’s integrity.” Integrity, according to the Dictionary is “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” Peter Drucker once said, “ There is no such thing as business ethics. Either you are always ethical or you’re not.” Clearly, integrity does not fall into the ‘situational’ category of behavior. Integrity is a constant. It is non-negotiable and immune to bribery or reward. Situational ethics is best summed up in an old Chicago political axiom—“if you accept the offer, it’s a reward. If you reject it, it’s a bribe.” A person with high integrity is rarely put in the position of having to accept or reject a shady offer. Still, if confronted with a questionable offer, they respond with the spontaneous right action—they reject it. Once you’ve rejected enough dubious offers, words gets around that your integrity is fixed and firm. Your reputation becomes both a sword and shield for dealing with the sly, the slick and the wicked.

Now, with your character and integrity firmly established, you are able to project an Authenticity that attracts people to you and that gives credence to your words. To be authentic is to be honest in thoughts, words and actions. In a word, to be authentic is to be genuine. Authentic leaders are dealers in truth. Sometimes, the truth is painful and, at other times, it is liberating. Yet, it is always a powerful communication tool. The truth minimizes complexity, eliminates needless drama, reduces cycle time and creates a culture of openness. If the leader can speak the truth, everyone in the organization is empowered to speak the truth. In other words, sales forecasts can be truthful, missed opportunities can be admitted and constructive criticism can be shared. If the leader lies to the shareholders and stakeholders about company performance, the employees will lie to the leader about his/her performance. Duplicity breeds duplicity. Authenticity breeds authenticity. Out of authenticity comes trust.

Trust is what we feel and accept about another’s real intention. Without trust there can be no peace or progress. Trust requires that we accept, unconditionally, that a person or group’s actions and intentions are honorable and supportive of our goals and actions. For one human to trust another human, one must be willing to believe that their interests are held harmless and will not be subject to trickery or be undermined. Trust is the byproduct of high character, integrity and authenticity. An untrustworthy person cannot trust another person. Untrustworthy means there is always that doubt, that question and that concern about another person’s motive. Most untrustworthy people see trusting people as naïve and gullible. They pretend to be trustworthy only to gain an advantage. Trust is a tool of deception for them. Yet, in spite of their skill at acting to gain the confidence of others, they are incapable of respecting those they dupe. Their reasoning is simple. They feel as though they are transparent and those who can’t see through them are slow and deserving of being exploited. In other words, they don’t trust themselves and are astounded when others trust them. Leaders who practice building ‘false trust’ are inevitably found out.

Trusted Leaders are static free, fair and even handed, comfortable in the own skins and clear (no BS) communicators, while always being truthful when speaking or writing. As former Presidential Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer once said, “Everything truthful need not be said. But everything said must be truthful.”