“Watch your back, Jack.”
There are a number of quotes from the 1994 movie Clear and Present Danger that still stand out to me, despite the fact that I haven’t seen it in years. The film centers on a CIA agent named Jack Ryan who is drawn into an illegal war between the US government and a Colombian drug cartel.
In one scene, a team of advisors is crafting a damage-control strategy after a close friend of the President is murdered. This friend, it turned out, had been hiding profits from the IRS and laundering money for the Columbian drug cartel (which I’m sure would never happen in real life). The advisors decide that the best course of action is to downplay the President’s association with the shady character.
But Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) had a different idea. He suggested that if the President were to be asked about their relationship, he should reply that they were good friends — lifelong friends.
“There’s no sense defusing a bomb after it’s already gone off,” he said.
I completely agree. I believe that when you make a mistake, the best strategy is to swallow your pride and own up to it. Get it all on the table — give honest answers, and show remorse, and it will soon be forgotten.
But if you deny it, all of a sudden we have a story. Issuing a denial — or, even worse — refusing to answer questions ramps up the curiosity and leads to more digging. And all of a sudden, the cover-up becomes more interesting — and more damaging — than the actual wrongdoing.
It’s like the lyrics in one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs, The Wheel: “If the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will.”
In other words, fess up. Issue the mea culpa, and move on. It’s a concept that seems fairly simple, yet has caused many public figures to fall from grace.
One of the most compelling case studies is that of Lance Armstrong.
He had it all. Olympic gold medals, world records, and endorsements that would make Lebron James envious. He came back after successfully battling cancer to dominate his sport. His story was so captivating that it had millions of Americans watching cycling — I remember being glued to the Tour de France to root him on. He was that rare athlete that crossed over into the realm of true celebrity. Lance Armstrong was on top of the world.
And then, the rumblings about doping started.
It started with a few whispers that were quickly hushed, but eventually grew louder. But every time accusations surfaced, Armstrong denied them vehemently, and his sponsors stood behind him. Nike aired a commercial in which he stated, “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my [behind] six hours a day. What are you on?”
Everyone believed him — or at least they wanted to believe him. He was a cancer survivor who had made the U.S. proud. But the allegations didn’t go away, and nearly a decade later, the hammer came down. After a lengthy investigation, a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report said his career was “fueled from start to finish by doping.”
That is what he was on.
When it became clear he’d been lying, Armstrong admitted to a sympathetic Oprah Winfrey during a much-hyped interview that he did, in fact, use performance-enhancing drugs. Nike — along with Anheiser-Busch, Trek Bicycle Corp., and others — severed ties with the fallen hero, and yellow bracelets everywhere were thrown in the trash.
But instead of garnering support, the interview had the opposite effect. Nike withdrew its support for Livestrong, the charity Armstrong started that helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research.
It’s a shame, and I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Armstrong had come clean right away. He still would’ve been stripped of his medals, and he still would’ve lost the endorsements, but it’s entirely possible that his charity wouldn’t have taken such a big hit.
I believe it wasn’t the cheating that turned him into a pariah, but the cover-up. The false outrage. The lies.
He made a fool of the public, and that is unforgiveable.
When you make a mistake, you have a choice. You can stand up and face the music, or deny it, clinging to the hope that somehow you’ll escape scot-free. If you choose the latter, you better hope that the truth never comes out. Because if the thunder doesn’t get you, the lightning will.