Total dominance. #1 in the world. A household name. Nike ambassador. Who am I describing?
Here are a few more clues. Cheated. Publicly disgraced. Lost corporate sponsorships. Know who I’m talking about?
Unfortunately, these phrases describe two iconic athletes of the past 15 years. Two of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. Two men who seemed to have life by the throat, with the world as their waiter. They could go anywhere, buy anything, and the general public respected them as much, if not more, for the amazing work they did through their foundations to help kids and those less fortunate among us. Two athletes who both experienced tremendous fall-outs from their own mistakes. However, these two men couldn’t be further from each other in how they responded to their respective downfalls.
In 2009, through a crashed SUV and a police report filed on Thanksgiving night, it was revealed that Tiger Woods had several extra-marital affairs during his run as the greatest golfer of all time. His wife, Elin, had discovered his relationships by looking through his phone, and the sports world turned upside down. This once invincible closer, this superman in trousers and golf shoes, had a crack in his armor no one had seen before. It was devastating for Tiger, for his family, and for his golf fans, and it opened the flood gates for other golfers to pursue the throne he had enjoyed for the past decade.
This week, after years of allegations and sanctions by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Lance Armstrong finally admitted what many others, especially those in the world of cycling, had known for years: Lance Armstrong had cheated in order to win. And win he did.
It would be an understatement to say that Lance Armstrong dominated cycling in a way no one had ever seen. He was absolutely untouchable. From 1999 to 2005, he won the famed Tour de France – the dramatic 21-day, 2,200 mile race through the hills of France – in dramatic fashion with a feel-good story right out of a Disney movie. He had beaten testicular cancer just two years earlier, and through hard work, grit and determination he had become the greatest cyclist the world has ever known.
What’s interesting about these two men is not the fact that they fell – athletes and high-profile figures in society are exposed for doing the wrong thing all the time. What’s striking about these two men is what they did once their fall had become public knowledge. The way these two men responded to their moment of crisis speaks volumes, in my opinion, about the true content of their character.
In February 2010, just three months after his affairs were exposed, Tiger Woods held a televised news conference in which he made the following statement:
“I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.”
Tiger had been caught with a wet finger in the sugar sack, but he never blamed anyone but himself. He never denied it, and he made the long, lonely walk to that microphone that day and came clean. It must have been difficult for the 14-time major champion to admit his short-comings. But he did it. He has spent the past three years, often in solitude, rebuilding his image, his brand and his prowess as one of the greatest golfers in the game.
On the other hand, Lance Armstrong began facing accusations from anti-doping agencies and competitors back in 1999 during his first Tour de France victory. Throughout his dominance, he emphatically denied taking any performance-enhancing drugs, which is a common occurance these days for professional athletes. The Barry Bonds-Mark McGwire-Roger Clemens saga has, in many ways, made us less offended by people who cheat to reach higher levels of success.
Due to the way Armstrong handled himself in public, in conjunction with the work he did with his foundation to inspire cancer patients to fight and survive, led many of his fans and followers to believe he was innocent of cheating. To maintain this image, he took public sentiment to new extremes by attacking his accusers – many of which had testified under oath by subpoena – through law suits claiming libel and defamation to his brand. He won settlements in the hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of dollars, to protect his image and his brand. As it turns out, many of these witnesses were telling the truth and their lives were destroyed as a result.
During this time, Armstrong also received millions of dollars through his endorsement deals with Nike, the United States Postal Service, and his Livestrong Foundation. He became the world’s greatest philanthropist with the biggest heart, paying it forward to cancer patients and raking in a fortune, all the while lying to his fans, his critics and even several federal courts.
In contrasting these two men, I have been reminded of two principles every leader needs to remember.
- The Law of Sowing and Reaping. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Galatians 6:7, which says, “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Don’t be fooled: whatever you are sowing you will eventually reap. It’s a fact. Interestingly, the sowing usually happens in private, but the reaping often happens in public. Doing the right thing, especially when no one is watching, will be worth it in due time. Trust me.
- Character is not built in tough times; it is revealed. A man’s strength does not increase when he goes to lift a box; it’s simply revealed. Character works the same way. We all fall from time to time – some more in dramatic ways than others – but how we respond says more to the world about our character than we will ever know. Those seemingly insignificant choices you make each day build your character brick by brick, and it’s strength will be revealed when your world falls apart.
When the mistakes you sow cost you a job, your fame, your money or your influence, choose humility over pride & arrogance, admit your shortcomings, and begin rebuilding your life. Better yet, sow good things, whether they are popular or not, whether anyone sees you or not, and you will reap a harvest of good things in due time.