Good Self Bad Self INTRODUCTION
My mobile phone woke me at 1:42 a.m. I scrambled for it on the night table. Squinting at the Los Angeles area code, I tapped the talk icon, cleared my throat, and, as always, resisted the temptation to start with “Do you have any idea what time it is?” Instead I answered with my usual cheerful greeting. “This is Judy Smith,” I said.
I could sense the panic pulsing through the line; the caller was the CEO of a huge California corporation with a colossal emergency on his hands: He’d just learned that the head of the international arm of one of his companies was being threatened with a giant sexual harassment lawsuit. He wasn’t sure exactly what the executive at one of his companies had done, or even if he’d done anything. How should the CEO handle it? What should he do when the press showed up at his door? What the hell was he supposed to say to the stockholders, especially since he didn’t yet have all the facts? All the CEO knew was that the repercussions would be serious. He was exactly right. His job, not to mention his reputation and future employability, would all be on the line.
In a half-furious, half-terrified tone, the CEO told me the
meager details he knew so far. As I listened my eyes scanned the room, and I was reminded that I wasn’t at home in Washington, D.C. I’d arrived in New York late the night before to meet with a new client, and now I was in an anonymous hotel room in downtown Manhattan.
Still holding the phone to my ear, I padded across the plush carpet to the desk, sat down, flipped open my laptop, and started typing. “How could this happen?” the CEO on the phone kept asking. “How could it have happened on my watch?” He took a deep breath. “And what the hell am I going to do now?”
I’ve heard variations of these three questions more times than I can count. It’s my job to help people figure out how they wound up in the unenviable situation they’re in, and how to regroup, fix the problem, and deal with the fallout. As a professional crisis manager, that is what I do for a living, every hour of the day, every day of the year.
My two sons, Austin and Cody, who regularly express astonishment at my inability to follow driving directions (whether issued by a human or a GPS), find it hard to believe that anyone sees their mom as a coolheaded, problem-solving pro. But crisis management is an entirely different kind of navigation, one I’m quite good at. So perhaps it would be more accurate to describe me as an expert at handling other people’s crises. News flash for my boys: I am the one to call when the loss of direction belongs to someone else, as long as it’s a huge, metaphorical loss of direction.
Now, before you immediately put this book down because you don’t believe you have a crisis to manage, or atleast
not one that’s on par with what you’re likely to see on tomorrow’s morning news, let me be clear: The purpose of this book is to show how my work applies to you and to the entire spectrum of crises we find ourselves in, as well as share a wealth of practical strategies to navigate the world better. Have you ever gotten yourself into a situation you wish you hadn’t? Said something you wish you could take back? Done something that’s hurt your reputation or your relationships? Made a bad decision that’s cost you more than you bargained for? Or simply failed at getting what you want out of life due to too many setbacks and disappointments? If you’ve said yes to any of these questions, then this book is for you. If you said no, then this book is even more for you.
After a career of more than twenty-five years helping politicos, celebrities, and captains of industry cope with the messy truths in their lives, I’m eager to pass along the lessons I’ve learned. And here’s the crux of it: None of us is perfect. Expecting perfection—in life, work, interpersonal relationships, health habits, driving, studying, you name it—is a surefire ticket to failure.
While you may have already known that deep down, what you might not realize is that our best qualities and our worst traits are actually one and the same. That’s why I’ve titled this book Good Self, Bad Self. The secret to living the life you want and staying out of personal crisis is knowing what drives you and being self-aware and self-policing enough to make sure those traits stay positive instead of turning negative. That goes for managing others effectively as well.
That freaked-out CEO on the phone? His management style—letting each division head have a great deal of freedom—encouraged the creativity and flexibility that allowed his many companies to soar, but his lack of direct engagement also led to his cluelessness about the possible bad behavior of one honcho. That’s just one example of how what makes people successful in life and in business can be the same trait that gets them into trouble.
I came to this realization over many years. In fact, at age eleven I fixed my first interpersonal disaster, the tragic breakup of the “it” couple of my middle school in Washington, D.C., where I grew up. Let’s call them Michele and Lloyd. After the tween rumor mill had done its dirty work, Michele was positive that Lloyd kissed another girl. He steadfastly denied it. I had a reputation as a good listener and problem solver, so Lloyd came to me to plead his case. After hearing his side, I was convinced he was telling the truth. I went to Michele and persuaded her that Lloyd was still her Prince Charming. The magic words I culled from Lloyd’s verbal river of desperation? “Judy, why would I want to kiss another girl in school! Only a fool would risk messing that up!” They were so sincere and heartfelt that they struck me as true, and it didn’t hurt that it was what Michele wanted to believe about herself. When I repeated his sentiments to Michele, the crisis was over as quickly as it had begun. She declared me her new best friend. I had saved their relationship … which lasted another week before they grew bored with each other. Michele and Lloyd were just a teaser of what was to come.
From there I moved on to my first corporate crisis involving a local company, Sam’s Print Shop. Sam decided to cut funding for the after-school program held at the playground up the street. The playground director, Francine, sadly told all the parents and kids that softball, ballet, and tap were being eliminated. The uproar was instantaneous. We kids were devastated to lose the activities we loved, as well as the justification we used to get away from our parents until dinnertime. Our parents were traumatized to lose the unofficial neighborhood babysitting service.
I decided to take action. Over the next few days, I helped Francine come up with a plan that included producing flyers, going door-to-door with other kids to enlist neighbors in our cause, and petitioning other businesses to pick up the slack in funding the after-school program. Eventually Sam’s kicked in a little money, so did the local dry cleaner, the supermarket, and a few other businesses. With everyone pitching in (and not so coincidentally, getting positive publicity for stepping up to help the kids), we kept the playground program alive. My first taste of grassroots organizing helped me realize that no crisis was insurmountable. And I still believe in that to this day.
The Balancing Act
Of all the lessons and strategies you’ll learn in this book, perhaps the biggest one of all is simply this: A little good old-fashioned self-evaluation can keep you from ending up in the unfortunate position of some of the crisis-ridden folks you read about or see on TV. This book isn’t just for people in
trouble. It’s for anyone who wants to find and maintain success in his or her professional and personal life. My goal is to help you think about the elements that might keep you on track in your career and your relationships or help you get back on track if you’ve gone astray.
My book is for anyone and everyone who finds himself or herself getting in his or her own way. It’s for people who want to know how to change the patterns that get them into trouble—sometimes that’s a matter of looking forward with authenticity and introspection; sometimes it’s a matter of working backward from the desired outcome to the crisis at hand. It’s for people who let ego or pride get them into predicaments that feel out of their control, for people who consistently find themselves putting a foot in their mouth, for people who keep denying the truth—and it’s even for people who just want to get ahead in life and learn how to harness their inner powers while keeping those same assets in check so they don’t become liabilities. It’s for those who have a tendency to make bad situations worse inadvertently, or for those who struggle with making situations better.
Although I have rarely found there to be only a single cause for the occurrence of a crisis—or for that matter only one solution—the root causes of most crises often lie in an imbalance in one of seven traits: Ego, Denial, Fear, Ambition, Accommodation, Patience, and Indulgence. All these attributes can be blessings as well as curses; they’re positive qualities when you manage them well and usually create a crisis when you don’t. The momentum they provide can keep you moving forward in your career and in your life, but out
of control they cause you to crash and burn. Some of us have many of these characteristics; some of us have only one or two. In any case, the key to avoiding personal and professional disaster is keeping all these properties in balance.
A Lifelong Career in the Trenches
What qualifies me to give this advice—sans the PhD and MD? I’ve been on the front lines and behind the scenes, managing myriad types of crises in the real world for decades, so my perspective is hands-on and realistic. I started my career at the Office of the Independent Counsel, where I worked on the Iran-Contra prosecution of Oliver North. Later, I was a prosecutor and Special Assistant at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washingon, D.C., where I worked on high-profile cases, including the prosecution of Mayor Marion Barry for drug possession. In 1991, I was appointed a Special Assistant and Deputy Press Secretary to President George H. W. Bush; in the White House I worked on a huge variety of foreign and domestic issues, including the allegations of sexual harassment made by Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearings. I’ve worked on the Enron Congressional inquiry, advised Fortune 500 companies, and assisted foreign governments ranging from Haiti to Zimbabwe to Saudi Arabia.
My firm, Smith & Co., sometimes feels a little like the Justice League of America. At any moment, we might receive a call from someone who needs help. At the drop of a hat, I rally the team and we sprint to the next plane.
On the flight, we replay, reassess, and reanalyze that frenzied phone call. We never quite know what we’re getting into: How deep does the problem go? Who are all the parties involved? What moves has the person in crisis made in an attempt to evade whatever it is he or she dreads so much? One thing is for sure, there is never a dull moment around here. As we get to know the client, we help him or her craft a strategy and a path for the future. If the client just wants the problem to go away and doesn’t want to look at the root causes of his or her predicament, my job is infinitely harder.
Managing scandals and crises may be the most sensational part of what I do, but it’s not everything. My team and I have been involved in some of the largest health crises in modern history. When the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic swept the country, we helped get vital information to the public and calm the international hysteria. We’ve advised governmental organizations working on the foreclosure crisis, and helped educate people about housing scams in this time of economic anxiety.
I’ve also worked with people who never expected to find themselves in the public eye, like Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the family of the tragically murdered young federal intern Chandra Levy. I’ve been quoted as a crisis expert in publications and on television. As I write this, Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and her partner Betsy Beers, are working on a dramatic series for ABC-TV called Scandal inspired by my work. Thanks to the miracle of television, I have become the talented Kerry Washington.
Indeed, some of my clients have been controversial figures. Before you rush to judgment on any or all of them, I’d argue that they still deserve a fair hearing and the opportunity to learn from whatever mistakes they’ve made. I would also point out that as a culture, we love to turn on powerful figures and are ever quick to demonize. The media maw gets bigger every year; we seem to have an insatiable appetite for paparazzi pics, insinuating blog posts, incriminating whispers, and the twenty-four-hour onslaught of disapproving gossip. People are always delighted to find someone new to tear down. We tend to see the world in binary terms—sinner or saint, angel or devil—but I think life is much more nuanced than that. The same traits that make you successful can be your downfall. That’s the root of most crises and the point of this book.
I do have my own personal code. There are cases I won’t take. It’s hard for me to generalize about cases I’ve turned down—as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity: it’s difficult to define, but I know it when I see it; it’s often a gut call. When something doesn’t feel right to me about a case, or the facts, or even what the client may be trying to achieve, I will pass.
Nonetheless, I firmly believe that most people who are willing to take responsibility for their own actions and who are repentant deserve a second chance. You deserve that same courtesy. Though we may not want to admit it, there’s a “bad guy” inside all of us. We’re all flawed in some way. All of us are capable of poor judgment and bad behavior. What can help us in business, life, and love is knowing our failings and being honest about them.
A wonderful quality about America is that we love redemption stories. We’re quick to lash out and assign blame, but we also draw from deep reservoirs of forgiveness. The scope, severity, and impact of the challenge change with the client and situation, but everyone we work with is looking for help and redemption. What I’ve discovered is that regardless of stature, power, celebrity, or wealth, crisis is a great leveler. Everyone makes mistakes. And the solution to them is often similar regardless of who we are. At some point in time, we’ll all need help. That’s true whether you’re a celebrity or a “real person.” I’ve worked with all kinds of people (and in this book, I’ll offer crisis-management case studies from folks who are household names and everyday people whose lives will never make the papers).
A Quick Tour of the Big Seven
I’ve organized this book by traits, devoting a single chapter to each of the seven chief traits that compose the good self/bad self. I end the book with an appendix dedicated to the art of apology, which you’ll learn can be one of the most important elements in preserving your good self, and your reputation.
Before we launch into the first chapter, however, let’s take a brief tour of each trait and gain a little perspective on how and why these particular attributes can be so powerfully enriching—and destructive—to each one of us. This will set the tone for the rest of the book, and prepare you to maximize your reading experience. Some, such as Ego, Ambition, and Accommodation,
are “personality definers,” the traits that motivate us to action. The other four, Denial, Fear, Indulgence, and Patience, are more typically responses to the situations we may find ourselves in. These qualities are neither perfect nor imperfect; they just are. Whether they work for you, or against you, is up to you.
The Big Seven
You need a strong ego to succeed, but it can also be your undoing. On one hand, being modest and unassuming leads to a modest and unassuming life. On the other hand, a rampaging ego can make you lose everything you’ve gained. Can you listen to input? Can you own your mistakes? What constitutes healthy and unhealthy ego? This chapter will help you answer these questions.
To some degree, you need denial to get anywhere; you have to ignore the fact that the odds are often stacked against success. If Mrs. Fields had acknowledged how difficult it is for a small business to succeed, let alone become a giant company, would she have ever attempted to sell a single chocolate chip cookie? On a personal level, choosing not to focus on your partner’s less endearing qualities can help you stay happily married. But denial can also be a hugely destructive quality.
Denying communication problems in a marriage can lead to greater and greater distance. So how do you find a middle ground? How can you make sure denial is an asset instead of a liability, for you?
Fear can be galvanizing or paralyzing. We are designed, by evolution, to be attuned to fear; it is a survival mechanism. Fear keeps us alert; the ability to flee danger can keep us safe. But fear can also stop us from taking the risks that could take our lives—romantic, professional, interpersonal—to the next level. Reading this chapter should help you determine whether your fear is holding you back or keeping you on the straight and narrow. I’ll also share some research on channeling your fears so that they fuel your success rather than freezing you in your tracks.
Ambition gets you up the ladder of work and life. But excess ambition can mean overreaching (shooting for or taking jobs you’re not ready for, or cheating to reach your goal faster), and can destroy your personal life (lack of attention to loved ones). How do we manage ambition so that it gives us the lives we want but doesn’t eat everything in its path?
While it’s vital to get along with others, it’s also imperative that you not do so at the expense of your own voice and your own dreams. Trying to make everyone happy—spouse, children,
parents, friends, boss, colleagues—can ultimately hurt you badly. At work, people sometimes find that being the “go-to guy” means that no one else wants to see you promoted, because you’re the perfect doormat right where you are. In the home sphere, being a “good doo-bee,” someone who quietly works around other people’s damage and avoids confrontation, can be soul crushing. So how can you be the helpful, giving person you want to be, without subverting and shortchanging yourself in the process?
Being patient is good. Until it isn’t. Sometimes bosses are too patient with hires they really want to work out. Sometimes CEOs are too patient with strategies they hope will turn a company around. Sometimes parents are too patient with children who need a real wake-up call. Sometimes we’re too patient with people and projects that don’t add to our lives and should be dismissed. Meaningful change usually comes incrementally, so how do we set the wheels in motion without going so slowly nothing can be accomplished, or too quickly to give things time to improve? On the flip side, having no patience at all leads to so many missed opportunities: life happens in the pauses.
A life without indulgence is no life at all. Parties, cake, fine wine—they can all bring joy and excitement to a quotidian world. But indulgence can become overindulgence all too quickly, hurting our health, relationships, and standing in the
community. This chapter can help you recognize whether the pendulum has swung too far in one direction or the other, toward decadence and hedonism on the one side or toward asceticism and self-abnegation on the other. I’ll also try to help you think about where your own personal line is.
The P.O.W.E.R. Approach
The ultimate goal of understanding how these seven traits operate in your own life is to ensure that your defining traits work to your advantage instead of your detriment.
So here’s the big question: Knowing that we all have qualities that can swing either way, for us or against us, how do we make sure they’re working in our service? The answer is in making sure we maintain balance. That’s why I’ve created a mnemonic device called the POWER approach.
I’ve always liked mnemonic devices. They’re a simple formula that can help you pull back from the drama and assess, which is really at the core of crisis management. When it comes to looking at positive traits that can spin out into negativity, I use the mnemonic reminder: POWER. You have the power to stop and regain your balance when your traits are pushing you out of a state of equilibrium and control. Here’s how:
Pinpoint the core trait: Identify which trait is in play.
Own it: Acknowledge that it can be both good and bad.
Work it through: Process the role it’s played in your life.
Explore it: Consider how it could play out in the future.
Rein it in: Establish how to re-achieve balance and control.
In each chapter, we’ll examine the POWER approach in action. Once you learn how these factors work and can apply the POWER model, you’ll have the ability to manage problems or even avoid them in the first place. I’ll help you identify the way certain character pluses can turn into minuses—and most of the time, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll actually learn to see disaster looming, take steps to minimize or prevent it, and keep your life on track. I’ll also give you questions and issues to think about to further ascertain whether you’re keeping those seven essential qualities in balance.
If you’re already in the midst of a crisis (perhaps that’s why you picked up this book) … well, I’ll help you ride it out. The upside of crisis is the opportunity to take a good look at yourself, and confront and then resolve the challenges that have held you back. With self-reflection and a willingness to change direction, you free yourself to move on and pursue what’s really important to you.