OK, I’m still in mourning over our Seahawks defeat in the Superbowl. Somehow getting there two years in a row–a feat few in our area ever dared dream of–is tainted by one play.
So that’s kinda how Brian Williams and Pete Carroll are alike. Both have had fantastically successful careers, rising to the top of their profession and being counted among the very best of the best. Both made huge mistakes in front of millions–mistakes that cause us mere mortals to shake our heads in wonder, with even a bit of pity. How have the mighty fallen!
Brian Williams’ mistake will likely not only cost him his job, but like Dan Rather, his place in the pantheon next to the place of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrows. Pete Carroll’s mistake will be remembered and talked about, but will likely not diminish much his stature as one of the truly great coaches of our time.
Credibility is gold. It is the currency on which reputations live or die. It is the one thing no person, no organization, no government can afford to lose and expect to be effective. I made that point as strongly as I could in Now Is Too Late, and suggested that if you find yourself in a position where your credibility is lost, you only have two options: give up or borrow someone else’s.
Brian’s credibility was severely damaged by the revelation of being less than honest about his Iraq experience. It was destroyed by his inept explanations that have been denied by the witnesses present.
Carroll’s credibility as a supreme coach, tied closely to his competence and success in winning games, was and is severely tested by the decision to pass the ball rather than let Marshawn run it in. His response was different: he accepted full responsibility. (The fact that Russell Wilson attempted to also take full responsibility leads me to have more pride in the Seahawks in defeat than I could in victory.) There is considerable reason to believe that it was offensive coach Darrell Bevell who made the fateful call. But it really doesn’t matter as Carroll has taken full responsibility. If he had made even the slightest effort to shift the blame to Bevell, his credibility would sink like gold in a pool. Or turn to lead. Like Williams.
Certainly there are other differences. Football, after all is just a game (yeah, try telling that to Seattle right now). Being nightly news anchor means you have exceptionally strong pull over public opinion which can have huge consequences for the nation and world. One mistake was a question of judgment, the other a question of character. There are big differences alright. But the primary lesson remains the same:
Credibility is gold.
CEOs and their communication leaders must understand that nothing, nothing can be allowed to disrupt their credibility. Battles for public opinion most often come down to the question as to who can be believed, who can be trusted. Aristotle was right when teaching about rhetoric that the three basic appeals in persuasion are logos, pathos, ethos. Logic, emotion and the appeal to the person–credibility of the speaker. Of the three, he was clear that the most important was ethos. Yet, how often don’t we see credibility being tossed aside like it doesn’t matter. Even more, how often do we see individuals, companies and organizations fail to protect their credibility against attacks. This is why I highlighted Elon Musk and Tesla’s aggressive response to a negative New York Times review and US government safety investigation.
And how does one build and protect credibility: tell the truth, all the time. Don’t be like Brian.