Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fallible heads of idealistic organizations

For those who haven't heard, the Livestrong charity made an announcement on October 17:

Lance Armstrong, founder and chairman of LIVESTRONG, made the following announcement today regarding his status as chairman of the cancer non-profit organization's board of directors:

"In 1996, as my cancer treatment was drawing to an end, I created a foundation to serve people affected by cancer. It has been a great privilege to help grow it from a dream into an organization that today has served 2.5 million people and helped spur a cultural shift in how the world views cancer survivors....

"I have had the great honor of serving as this foundation's chairman for the last five years and its mission and success are my top priorities. Today therefore, to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship.

"My duties will transfer to Vice Chairman Jeff Garvey who will serve as chairman. Jeff's guidance and wisdom have been critical to shaping the foundation's work since its earliest days. Jeff was this organization's founding chairman and I have full confidence that under his leadership, the foundation will continue expanding its ability to serve cancer survivors.

Armstrong is not the only person to separate himself from a charity or non-profit organization that he founded. Most of you will recognize the name of a charity called The Second Mile; in September 2010, Jerry Sandusky "retired" from day-to-day involvement with that charity because of allegations about his behavior. There are countless other examples - Jim Bakker's departure from PTL comes to mind.

These events reflect a tension that is always present in charities and non-profits - and even in some profitable businesses.

Without going into great detail into my personal beliefs, I will simply state that I believe that people are not perfect, and that people (of their own accord) cannot become perfect. Therefore, the news of Scandal X or Scandal Y affecting the head of an organization is not surprising. The news may be sad or regrettable, but it's not surprising. People make mistakes.

However, charities and non-profits are often idealistic organizations that paint a picture of perfection. Livestrong has a Manifesto that purports to guide everything that it does. As manifestos do, this Manifesto makes its point through uncompromising, idealistic statements:

Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything.

There is no room for shades of gray in such statements. We WILL support cancer victims. We WILL help kids. We WILL bring our religious message to the world.

What happens when you discover that the person heading your idealistic organization is a fallible human being? To those who believe in the ideals of the organization, it's shocking and devastating. It could even kill the organization itself - The Second Mile is on life support - its fundraising abilities have been severely hampered by the negative Sandusky publicity, and its plan to transfer its assets to another charity has been delayed pending outcome of legal proceedings against the organization. And, as I noted in my tymshft blog, Jim Bakker's organization went under very quickly, and its complex of buildings was abandoned a mere few years after Bakker's scandal broke.

Before one dismisses these reactions as unique to the world of non-profits and charities, think again. Many for-profit businesses have small cores of idealistic fanatics who nearly worship their every move. Years ago, I remember meeting a woman who worshipped the very ground that Dick Pick walked upon. And I think that we can all think of more modern examples.

And there are certainly cases in which the heads of these idealistically-viewed businesses are proven to be fallible. After Walter Isaacson's biography was released, a lot of people were talking about Steve Jobs. Some claimed that his faults were outweighed by his brilliance. Others disagreed:

The book talks about how he cultivated a conversational style of long pauses followed by rapid speaking, used to intimidate and control people. The book makes some interesting connections between Jobs’s personality and the dictatorial control he always exercised over his ideas....And it talks about Jobs’s infamous “reality distortion field,” where Jobs seemed to deny reality and expect the impossible from people around him. I always thought this was a metaphor. But no, apparently Jobs really believed this in some fundamental way.

Learning about his absolutely nutbag experimentation in eastern religions and 70s hippie fads is simultaneously amusing and disturbing. I don’t want to know how many drugs this guy did. Sometimes it’s a wonder the man made it out of the 70s alive.

The title of the post quoted above referred to Jobs as a "psychopath."

What do we do when we find out that the organizations that inspire us are run by dopers, child abusers, adulterers, and psychopaths?
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