Trump Loyalty & Seinfeld Nudity: The Good & the Bad

There’s a classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry complains to George that his girlfriend likes to walk around the apartment naked. While George thinks that sounds heaven-sent, Jerry explains the difference between good-naked and bad-naked. A naked woman in bed is good-naked. A naked woman sneezing or struggling to open a jar lid is bad-naked.

A similar dichotomy has taken stage in full view in Trump’s executive office. The president clearly values loyalty above experience and expertise. As a result, he has surrounded himself with loyalists like Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Jeff Sessions, and many more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with loyalty. Indeed, loyalty is a much coveted trait in politics, business, and personal relationships. But loyalty must be accompanied and moderated by honesty. Without the ability to be honest (i.e., to disagree and criticize when necessary), loyalists turn into sycophants. They become detrimental rather than advantageous resources.

I’ve long been an advocate of playing the role of the devil’s advocate. I’ve written about it in several books and have discussed it in every class I’ve taught. To my mind, the most valuable contribution a loyalist can make is to pose the questions that no one else can or will ask. The vast majority of decisions would be strengthened – or decimated – simply by tossing a monkey wrench into the mix. Asking why, what-if, how-and-when, what-about, and a million other variations of the let’s-take-a-step-back-and-reconsider our options and alternatives is critical to success in every endeavor.

Devil’s advocacy is a technique that requires a level of confidence and spiritual courage that is rarely found in an administration that celebrates obsequiousness, revels in affirmation, embraces the superficial, values bluster over decorum, and disvalues intellectual curiosity in any form.

What we are experiencing today via The Donald and his fawning entourage is bad-loyalty at its worst and most damaging. As Trump would say: it’s BIGLY SAD.

“This Is Us” Is Me – And Maybe You Too

Meeting my brother for the first time.

The hit television show This Is Us is a poignant family drama. It’s been an especially emotional experience for me as I’ve watched Randall discover and build a relationship with his newly discovered birth father, William. At the same time, Randall’s relationship with his adopted mother Rebecca deteriorates as he struggles with the knowledge that she purposely excluded William from his life. My story is quite similar.

My father, Paul Spizuco, died when I was 18 months old. I never saw a picture of him until I was in my mid-twenties (and only because my dear Uncle Julie had kept some photos for me). For a long time my youthful mind assumed Paul must have been a bad guy because no one ever talked about him. In my late twenties my grandmother told me Paul was actually fun and generous and I was a lot like him. In my mid-thirties, I learned from a cousin that Paul had been a widower when he married my mother and had three daughters from his first marriage. My mother confirmed that but, when I asked why I had no contact with them, she said they wanted nothing to do with me after their father’s death. I had no reason to disbelieve her. Over the ensuing years, I made some minor attempts to find my half-sisters but with no success.

About ten years ago, I learned that my mother had been the one that purposely cut me off from my paternal family. That’s when I, like Randall, became focused on finding my birth-father’s family. One weekend in 2010, a childhood friend and his wife were visiting and we talked about my quest. They’d had success tracking down their own family trees on Ancestry.com and within two hours, I learned Paul’s deceased wife’s name and when she died. Most importantly I learned that I had two half-sisters and a half-brother. I contacted the woman who had posted the information and introduced myself. Long story short, the next day my 80-year-old brother, Paul Jr., called and we spoke for an hour. He was twenty years older than me and had been in the Marines when our father died. The next day I spoke to the daughter of my youngest half-sister, who told me her mom had always talked about me and her dying wish was to see me one more time. She had died ten months earlier. My older half-sister had died much earlier in life. Each of my half-siblings had large families and I became a “half-uncle” to about twenty nieces and nephews.

Paul Jr. died in 2014. I knew him for less than four years, but I cherish those years and I know our relationship meant a lot to him as well. My most vivid memory was a summer reunion party with all of Paul’s kids and their kids. My daughter accompanied me as we met all these blood relatives we didn’t even know existed. On the way back, she said, “That’s your family.” She explained that they all had the same kind of goofy humor that I’ve never outgrown, and we looked and sounded alike. Even after my brother’s death, I’ve remained in touch with his family and will be attending the wedding of my nephew’s son in July.

That’s the good part of the story. The bad part is that I lived sixty years without knowing any of these wonderful people. And just like Randall, the experience has profoundly affected my memories of my mother. In last week’s episode, Rebecca admitted her mistake. She acknowledged that she’d been selfish in keeping Randall away from William. My own mother never made that admission even when given multiple opportunities to explain the whys and wherefores of her actions.

It’s too late for me to make amends with my mother, and the heartache I feel seems too immense to ever fully overcome. As my eyes welled when William died, I had an overwhelming urge to share my story publicly for the first time. It became clear to me that we humans possess an innate tendency to tell lies in the name of “protecting” ourselves or others. We’re all selfish at times and we’re amazingly proficient at rationalizing our words and actions regardless of how painful and callous they might be.

The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to right a wrong and tell the truth about falsehoods (regardless of how well-intentioned). The longer we wait the more the issue festers. When the lie is finally revealed – and it almost always is – the damage can be irreparable. So if you do need to make amends, I urge you to do it now. Yes, it will be hard; but it will get harder every day you delay. And it will get exponentially harder every single day for the person you deluded to deal with the truth and the lie’s aftermath.

Just Admit You Don’t Know

the-thinkerOne could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the workplace) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of stating “I don’t know” is amplified by the worries that we should know it, perhaps we once knew it but have since forgotten, and that everyone else knows it.

There are two alternative approaches to saying “I don’t know.” The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run than admitting one’s ignorance, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations, your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.

The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Admit your ignorance and allow yourself to learn something in the process. Confessing that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.

One of Them Is Lying

lyingAs the Republican and Democratic conventions approach, some things are certain. We’ll hear a lot of soaring rhetoric and teeth-gnashing. We’ll see more pomp than a Kardashian Instagram feed. And we’ll be fed a steady stream of hyperbole, cherry-picked factoids, and outright lies. Mark Twain famously observed that politicians would never lie “unless it was absolutely convenient;” and the Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen told us, “Nobody speaks the truth when there is something they must have.” (Every politician, of course, must win his/her election for the sake of the country.)

Twain and Bowen are both implying that people apply a situational definition to honesty and integrity. True character, however, allows for no compromise on honesty. Trustworthiness is not something you can compartmentalize and turn on or off at will. You can’t be trustworthy in some aspects of your life but not in others. We are either trustworthy or we’re not. We’re either a rock or a pile of shifting sand. People either know they can count on us or we are doomed to disappoint them. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

A basic tenet of Hinduism says, “If you speak the truth long enough, your word becomes universal law.” Every time you demonstrate trust, you strengthen and enhance the public recognition of your integrity. That in turn leads to the ultimate goal of transforming the concept of trust into a practical reality. In a very real sense, trust becomes you and you become trust.

Think long and hard and try to remember the last politician who exuded trust as a core attribute. They may say, “trust me,” but provide no basis for doing so. And it’s not just politicians. Trust and honesty are characteristics that elude most of us.

Several years ago a former colleague – let’s call her Kristen – was engaged in a compensation dispute with her boss, the CEO of the company. It was a classic he-said/she-said situation. Here’s the scenario in brief. The company was rolling out a new compensation program and when the CEO explained the specifics of her target amount, Kristen said it was insufficient and substantially lower than her peers. She suggested that she and the company part amicably rather than engage in a pissing contest. The CEO quickly agreed that Kristen’s package was lower than her colleagues and assured her that the discrepancy would be adjusted by a certain date. Just as they had done on previous occasions, they shook hands on the deal.

When the agreed-upon date arrived, the extra compensation did not arrive along with it. The CEO acknowledged his earlier assurances but stated it was now out of his hands. Kristen was justifiably upset. The additional compensation was being paid out to her colleagues and she was low girl on the totem pole. She offered to resign and not make a fuss as long as she was paid the amount she was due. The CEO warned that she was going down a slippery slope and said the discussion was over.

Kristen subsequently sued the company and endured a bitter legal battle. The company’s other employees were forced to take a position – either side with the company and ostracize their colleague, or side with Kristen and potentially face retribution from management. All of this position-taking, however, was done with no one knowing the facts of the matter. And because it was a legal matter, Kristen was unable to share any non-public information. Instead, she would simply make the same statement to anyone who inquired: “Only two people know the truth. One of us is lying. You decide who.” That statement usually engendered a smirk and a knowing nod. Kristen had spent her entire career building a reputation for integrity, frankness, and honest dealing. She felt confident that the vast majority of people would look at the two parties and be hard-pressed to identify any instance where Kristen had ever said or done anything that could remotely be construed as untoward or deceitful.

I share this story to ask if you would be confident in declaring that “One of us is lying” and leaving the determination to others. Even more importantly, as election season is about to go into high gear, can you identify a candidate who could confidently, and without a trace of irony, make that same declaration? Can you imagine a debate stage in September or October when the presidential and vice-presidential candidates might point at their opponent and state, “One of us is lying. You decide.” It won’t happen and it can’t happen, because lying has become the hallmark of American politics.

The best we could hope for would be a candidate to look straight into the camera and say this: “We’re both lying. It’s your job to decide which of us is lying less.” That’s how far our political debate has declined but, in the parlance of the day, it is what it is. So, in the absence of true integrity, the best we can do is weigh one candidate’s mendacity against the other’s perfidiousness – and may the least deceitful win.