What Brian Williams needed was an Ally.

By Morag Barrett on March 10, 2015

Posted by Morag Barrett | March 10, 2015What Brian Williams needed was an Ally.We’ve all seen the headlines, read the reports, and watched the fallout from Brian Williams’ admission that he allegedly misspoke about his experience in Iraq. His helicopter may not have been the target of an RPG. It was not ‘shot down’.Had this acknowledgement and correction happened immediately following the first ‘misremembered statements and reports,’ then this would be a non-story, old news, or better still, no news. Instead, the acknowledgement and correction have come more than a decade later.Conversations across the country are centered on “How could he do it?”Personally, I am less interested in this question; after all, we’ve all misspoken at some point in our lives, though likely in a less public and catastrophic way. There’s an old adage that there are always four truths in any situation: my truth, your truth, our truth and the truth. Tell a story often enough and the boundaries of fact and fiction will often blur and “become” reality (at least for the storyteller).For me, the question is not “How could he (Brian Williams) do this?” but rather “How could they allow this to happen?”It seems to me that what Brian Williams was lacking, in addition to professional judgment, was an Ally: someone who had his back and could help him to recall the events in Iraq as they actually happened, and correct his embellishments before they destroyed his reputation.What’s an Ally?An Ally is the most important of the four relationship dynamics I describe in my book Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships. An Ally is the person – often a colleague – who has your back at all times, and is invested in your success. This is an unconditional relationship: one that you can depend on in good times, and more importantly in tough times. You are invested in each others’ success.This is not about skipping through the daisies where everything is just wonderful all the time; Allies will give you the tough feedback, as well as the encouragement, you need.A true Ally will be the first person in your office to tell you, “You misspoke…. That’s not what happened.” They are the ones who hold the mirror to your face and make you take a long, hard look. And they coach you through fixing your mistakes, before they become front-page news or a career derailing moment. An Ally’s motto is “I’m right here with you.”What does it take to be an Ally?While an Ally relationship is sustained by the behaviors and interpersonal dynamics, it starts with having the right mindset. There are four foundational elements to an Ally mindset:Abundance & Generosity – This is about working with others to achieve mutual success. Moving from a “me first—my success” to a “we first—our success” mindset where we collaborate and share our expertise. When leaders start to perceive they are invincible and outside the rules and expectations others are held to, errors of judgment happen. Conversely, when team members look at the figureheads in their organization and put them on a pedestal, the risk is “My success is tied to their success. I can’t rock this boat.”Courage & Vulnerability – In an Ally relationship, courage and vulnerability go hand in hand. Courage to speak up and deliver the feedback others need to hear, whether or not they want to. Courage to speak up against the prevailing view, and provide warnings of impending disaster – even in the face of personal and professional risk. Vulnerability is not about weakness; in fact, it takes real courage to be vulnerable. The vulnerability to listen and hear those messages when they are provided to you and to not simply ignore them if they do not match your truth. Courage and vulnerability to say “That’s not how it happened. That’s not how we should report it.”Candor & Debate – This is about having the right conversations at the right time with the right people. Conversations that identify the elephants in the room. Cultivating Allies is about discussing the un-discussable topics before they become barriers to success.Newscasters have a challenging role. They have to effectively communicate complex situations in a matter of minutes, weave stories that capture the hearts and minds of their audience, and, hopefully, leave us better informed. It is a skill to edit a message related to an event that may span years, months, days or hours into a sound bite of a few minutes or less. Get it right, and you can inspire action. Get it wrong, and you find yourself “misspeaking.”Action & Accountability – This refers to following through on the promises you make to others. It’s about “doing” behaviors consistently with all stakeholders, especially in the difficult interactions, or times of uncertainty.Brian Williams’ story is not unique; we only have to look to Lance Armstrong, Richard Nixon, and Bernie Madoff as further examples of individuals who have experienced a rapid fall from grace.Our attention is invariably drawn towards the individual failing, when when we look closely – hindsight being ever 20/20 – there is invariably culpable negligence, and a team who were the “they” that allowed the crisis to happen.If the others on the helicopter had spoken up when Brian Williams first ‘misspoke’ about what happened, it’s likely Williams wouldn’t have found himself in the position he does today. He could have chosen to make a public restatement – or, at the very least, not repeated the story over the years.Had the film crew in New Orleans challenged his report on Hurricane Katrina, Brian Williams could have chosen to adjust his subsequent approach on film. (A pattern of behavior has come to light that is questioning the veracity of other reports Williams has made, but I will set those aside for now).Each misquote could be attributed to simply ‘reading the script’ – the autocue ubiquitous to every news studio in the world. Teleprompter content is crafted by a team of writers, copy editors, producers, and approved by a whole team (including, I expect, Williams) behind the scenes before it’s aired to be read by one man. Team culpability – an opportunity at each moment for any one of them, including Brian Williams, to demonstrate Ally behavior and say “That’s not how it happened”.But the difficult part is not that we don’t know what we should do. It’s that we don’t follow through when the stakes are highest, when the pressure is on, and especially when there is personal risk. Being an Ally is a commitment, and a 24/7 way of operating. You can’t only be an Ally on Tuesdays at 2pm.Who’s Your Ally?Cultivating Ally relationships is as much a business imperative as it is a personal imperative.Had Brian Williams had an Ally, his reputation and career may not now be in tatters.Had NBC nurtured a culture and team of Allies then their professional brand and reputation would not now be damaged.Being an Ally, having an Ally is not simply a nice to have. It’s a need to have. Your success and reputation depends on it.Related Articles Share2
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