Heroes and Heroic Acts

One good act doesn't make an impeccable character

Photo courtesy of Tobias van Schneider

Photo courtesy of Tobias van Schneider

Late last year, cancer-survivor Lance Armstrong finally confessed to taking performance-enhancing drugs while winning a record seven Tour de France titles. This happened after many repeated denials. Until the confession, his response to anyone who suggested he cheated and doped was an intense denial. Typically, he would attack his accusers, often calling them all liars.

Similar stories abound in the world of baseball. In the latest episode early this month, Major League Baseball disciplined 13 players for their relationship to Biogenesis of America, a now-closed, Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs. Twelve players were suspended for 50 games each. The stiffest penalty was reserved for Alex Rodriguez, who was banned for the remainder of the 2013 season, and the entire 2014 campaign. While some are applauding the ban, others say that the punishment doesn't match the crime.

There have been many outcries against most of these athletes. People are disappointed because they looked up to them, especially because of the good work some of them do in their communities. They wonder how such “good” people could also be cheats.

What most of us forget, is that the fame and riches these people get as rewards from being good athletes does not translate to a change in character. They are who they are. In fact, their visibility as star athletes only magnifies who they already are, and elevates it for all to see. That’s why Michael Vick’s dog-fighting passion came to the fore a few years ago. Their riches helped them to indulge in who they really are.

But that’s not unique to famous people. It's in every one of us. We all have our character flaws. Mine is hidden from the public because I don’t have the fame that will put it on display for all to see.

This is especially true of leaders. The leadership position provides a level of visibility to others. The leader's flaws and shortcomings become easily apparent. Good leaders realize this, and they learn to compensate. They do not wane in their yearning for improvement, knowledge and growth. They acknowledge their areas of weaknesses and surround themselves with people who are strong in those areas. They do not cease to learn and grow.

One Good Act …

An athlete starts a foundation, and does good things in the community. The fire fighter runs into a burning building and rescues 20 people. As a result, we elevate them to the status of heroes. Once elevated, we expect their character to be spotless. There is a human tendency to deduce integrity and character from one (or more) noble acts performed by someone. However, no one’s perfect.

Months later, we discover that the fireman beats his wife and that our star athlete is a fraud. Our hearts are broken, and we get disappointed. But wait! Why do we expect perfection from these people? The good they do in the community does not make them saints. They’re just like us. My one good act does not translate to an impeccable character.

Character and integrity are the glues that tie everything together. No matter how much good you’ve done, one lapse in character could cost you several years to build back the trust that has been lost.

Why is this so?

It's because character speaks! Character communicates louder than anything else. In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell describes some of the things that character communicates. He writes, “People will tolerate honest mistakes. People will also give leaders a grace period for connecting with others. However, they won’t forgive lapses in character”. 

I used to work with an organization whose CEO was an exceptional leader. He led the business to more than a decade of annual growth and high returns for shareholders. He treated everyone with respect and valued employees’ contributions, no matter how small. When he retired, the next CEO appointed by the Board of Directors was the complete opposite. He was arrogance personified, and did not hesitate to let everyone know how smart and better he was than everyone at everything.

Soon, he got into trouble and was fired. As a result, the goodwill previously enjoyed by the organization suffered. Its solid reputation, built under the leadership of the former CEO took a hit when the new guy showed up. It took many more years of good leadership to build it back. The character of the leader reflects on the team or the organization.

So, is someone a hero because of a few heroics acts? I think not! But just as in the baseball saga, people are lining up on either side of this debate.

The battle rages on.