The third time's a trend.
When the Nixon Administration froze wages and prices on August 15, 1971, it was an unprecedented step. But my immediate reaction as I dressed for work that morning was wondering how it would affect my plans for a London vacation. By the time I arrived at the magazine office where I was a 23-year-old features writer, the senior news editor was frantically cranking out copy.
"Julie is the only one of you who gets it," chided the editor-in-chief. "She's been here since the crack of dawn, revamping our next issue. This news is going to have a major impact on the industry we cover."
It was a lesson I never forgot. Even now, when the magazine itself has ceased to exist, I automatically frame every piece of news in the context of what difference it may make in the world in which and to which I am responsible.
Another lesson that has stuck with me from my magazine days: Keep an eye out for trends. When we see or hear something different or surprising, it's like the first ring of a bell--a tickle on the edges of our awareness. If a second, similar event occurs, that's a second ring of the bell. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but it pays to tune our antennae with more attention. When the bell rings for the third time, bingo! We've got a trend.
My most recent "third bell" is a story that flitted onto my computer news gadget about the basketball coach of the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers. "Coach Ken McDonald was so embarrassed by his team's performance in a 20-point road loss to Vanderbilt on December 1 that after the game, he felt horrible for the fans who had made the hour-long drive to Nashville," reported ESPN Online. About 20 fans had made the trip. Coach McDonald not only sent them letters of apology, but he calculated the cost of gas mileage and wrote a $60 personal check to each fan.
"The Hilltoppers are now 5-7 after getting blown out on their home court yesterday against Louisville," ESPN reported December 23, 2010, "but at least fans of the program know that the coach is holding himself personally accountable."
A similar expression of personal responsibility had rung the day before. A blizzard that dumped tons of snow--including five inches in a single hour--wreaked havoc at London's Heathrow Airport during the height of the Christmas season. Critics complained about the length of time it took to clear runways. BBC News quoted Britain's Labour Transport Secretary, for example, as condemning the airport operator for having made "totally inadequate preparations."
My home airport used to be Chicago's O'Hare. Still vivid in my memory are the blizzards that shut O'Hare and paralyzed the city over Christmas and New Year's, 1978. Then Mayor Michael Bilandic, a backroom politician who had inherited the powerful Democratic machine when the first Mayor Richard Daley died suddenly in office, chastised us snowbound Chicagoans for not doing enough to facilitate snow removal--and then flew off with his family for a vacation in the Caribbean. Our street, just one block long, went untended by the city until late February. The Friday before the mayoral primary, a plow showed up. Prominently displayed in its window was an electioneering placard: "Michael J. Bilandic, Mayor."My husband passed a neighbor slogging through the slush, shaking her head and muttering, "It's too late. It's too late." Any wonder that Bilandic lost in an avalanche of votes?
So news about stranded travelers doesn't get much of a rise out of me. But my bell was rung by a statement from Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA, the Heathrow Airport operator: "We've had unacceptable conditions for passengers in the last few days. I'm responsible and I've decided not to take my bonus for 2010." (Emphasis mine.)
How much, exactly, is Matthews throwing into the snowdrift? Nobody's saying--except to note that last year he received [pounds sterling]994,000 (more than $1.5 million), including a six-figure bonus. Reported BBC News: "Mick Rix, the GMB union's national officer for the aviation industry who had called for Mr. Matthews to give up his bonus, said: 'For once, a British senior director has done the right thing.'"
But when it comes to doing the right thing, Barbara Picower is in a class by herself. Mrs. Picower is the widow of investor Jeffry Picower, a Florida philanthropist and businessman who became known as the individual who benefited the most from Bernie Madoff 's Ponzi scheme--apparently, even more than Madoff himself. "While the Madoffs clearly lived opulently," observes ProPublica (a Pulitzer-Prize-winning nonprofit organization devoted to "investigative journalism in the public interest"), "no evidence has emerged that their combined assets and expenditures approached the amount the Picower family is alleged to have withdrawn from the scheme."
Should Picower have smelled a rat? Attorneys trying to recover assets for Madoff 's victims thought so. Picower was under investigation when he suffered a heart attack and died in October 2009. A year later came stunning news: While insisting that her late husband had done nothing wrong, Mrs. Picower agreed to turn over to the court-appointed trustee the staggering sum of $7.2 billion. That's about one-third of the $20 billion Madoff swindled from investors; not surprisingly, it's reported to be the largest forfeiture in U.S. history.
Mrs. Picower's written statement is eloquent in its simplicity: "We will return every penny received from almost 35 years of investing with Bernard Madoff," she said. "I believe the Madoff Ponzi scheme was deplorable, and I am deeply saddened by the tragic impact it continues to have on the lives of its victims. It is my hope that this settlement will ease that suffering."
Cynics might note that Picower's will left his widow $200 million in cash unaffected by the forfeiture. And, by settling, Mrs. Picower shortens a legal wrangle that could have cost millions in attorneys' fees and could have ended with a forced forfeiture.
Cynics might also note that Western Kentucky Coach McDonald deflected attention from the kind of lackluster win-loss record that may cost a coach his job. Or that Heathrow Airport Chief Executive Matthews's performance might have caused him to lose his bonus anyway.
But I see a fundamental truth: Any of us, at any time, may be touched by the suffering of fellow human beings. When we are so touched, we may be jolted out of absorption in everyday patterns. Our self-interest is seen against a larger backdrop, and our understanding of personal responsibility sharpens, moving us to clear decisions and powerful action.
It isn't about delivering a mealy-mouthed "If I've offended anyone, I'm sorry" or shedding a tear while saying, "Mea culpa." Sure, that kind of accountability beats denial or finger-pointing. But you know someone is really accepting personal responsibility when they go the added distance to make things right.
In December, Mrs. Picower rang a resounding "first bell" on personal responsibility. Heathrow's Matthews rang "two." And Coach McDonald rang "three."
What if my old mentor was right--what if the third time really is the charm? Three examples of personal responsibility within a week. Wouldn't it be nice if this were a trend?
Betsy Raskin Gullickson is an executive coach and coauthor, with Bob Gunn, of On the High Wire: How to Survive Being Promoted. You can reach her at bgullickson@ sbcglobal.net.
Betsy Raskin Gullickson, Editor
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|Title Annotation:||BEST PRACTICES|
|Author:||Gullickson, Betsy Raskin|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2011|
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