Why did this man spend 41 years in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit?

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Herman Wallace in 2008. Credit: The Innocence Project/The Advocate.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  – Dylan Thomas 

You’d think rage would occupy the mind of Herman Wallace. He was held in solitary confinement for 41 years for a crime he didn’t commit. 41 years. Not just for an innocent error or a case of mistaken identity; 41 years in solitary confinement because the criminal justice system fucked him. Deliberately.

Herman Wallace didn’t rage at that travesty, at least not in a way many of us would consider rage. He was a model of measured restraint in irrepressibly fighting the injustice he faced before he passed away (you can here his voice talking about his experience here). But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rage. We should.

Allow me to take you on a journey. A journey about peeling back one of dark truths of our modern, representative democracy that we don’t like to talk about.

It’s a journey written especially for my white friends and readers, kicking open the door to some uncomfortable realities many of our lives have otherwise allowed us to avoid.

It’s also a tale written for my Republican and conservative friends, to call into question root beliefs around our criminal justice system, to allow for a long-overdue assessment of what criminal justice reform really means.

But, regardless of one’s race or political beliefs, this is a tale of a failure in our society’s criminal justice system we have allowed to linger for far, far too long.

The seed that could spawn eventual change in our country on this topic may well be the horrific case of Philando Castille. The black man shot and killed by a Minnesota cop during a traffic stop while complying with the officer and conducting himself entirely as he should have as a passenger legally carrying a firearm. Castille’s killer was acquitted in the clearest possible case where an officer should have been convicted of a crime for an unjust shooting. That incident along with others of police misconduct captured on cell phone video in recent months caused me and other traditionally conservative people to re-think some of our assumptions about the justice our country does or does not provide.

Living in New Orleans has since taken the seed of dismay for me and blossomed into a tree of righteous anger.

Anger?

Yes, anger.

I’ll tell you some reasons why.

A man was recently released from prison in Louisiana after 46 years after being wrongly convicted for rape.

Jones was found guilty in the Oct. 2, 1971, rape of a young Baton Rouge General Medical Center nurse who was abducted from the hospital parking lot. Another young woman was kidnapped Oct. 29, 1971, from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical and raped. Both were abducted at gunpoint.

[Judge] Anderson ruled the state was obligated to turn over information about the second rape to Jones’ trial attorneys but failed to do so. He said “there is a reasonable probability that, had the information been disclosed to competent counsel, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

The judge added that the “strong similarities” between the two rapes are “almost too numerous to list.” He also stated that the nurse’s physical description of her attacker is “an almost identical match” to Arnold Ray O’Conner, who was convicted of armed robbery in a September 1973 home-invasion rape near Baton Rouge General.

Wilbert Jones spent 46 years of his life behind bars because of what can only politely be called the benign neglect of prosecutors in the case. A less charitable version is prosecutors deliberately chose to withhold exculpatory evidence so convincing a judge overturned the verdict once brought to his attention decades later. Neither option is acceptable given the foundational principle of our country’s justice system that we are innocent until proven guilty.

Stories like this are sadly not unheard of in today’s America, including as DNA testing reveals some old verdicts as errors of justice. In that vein, one might argue: “gee, these problems sure seem like they’re rooted in the past. We’ve evolved as a society a lot in the last several decades, including with technology. We’re past that now, right?”

Wrong.

The New Orleans prosecutor’s office is facing a federal lawsuit today because of the use of “fake subpoenas” to compel testimony from innocent witnesses:

Topped with the word “subpoena” and the seal of the district attorney in New Orleans, the documents carried an air of authority. They instructed people to appear before prosecutors “to testify to the truth,” and they warned that “failure to obey” the missive could lead to a fine and imprisonment.

But the personalized documents were never endorsed by any court. Instead, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit brought on Tuesday in New Orleans, the papers that were disguised as subpoenas were central to a sustained and fraudulent effort by local prosecutors to coerce witnesses.

The lawsuit, filed by seven plaintiffs, accused local prosecutors of menacing prospective witnesses with what were supposedly subpoenas. Sometimes, the lawsuit said, officials asked judges that people be jailed as material witnesses after they balked at the demands for private meetings with prosecutors.

The approach, the lawsuit said, intended “to create a culture of fear and intimidation that chills crime victims and witnesses from asserting their constitutional rights.” It added, “As a result of these policies, crime victims and witnesses in Orleans Parish know that if they exercise their right not to speak with an investigating prosecutor, they will face harassment, threats, arrest and jail.”

Innocent, prospective witnesses were then sent to jail for failing to comply with these  “subpoenas,” including the victim of domestic violence jailed for five days before her attacker eventually avoided jail time after his ultimate conviction. That’s not justice. Far, far from it.

To make matters worse, the prosecutor’s office doesn’t appear to be serious about responding to the lawsuit, let alone having a modern filing system for records:

During the hearing, Love and other judges questioned Vincent about why the [fake subpoena] records were not more easily accessible.

“There’s no database of all your pleadings?” Love asked Vincent.

“No ma’am,” Vincent said. Moreover, it costs the DA’s office more than $8 to access a closed file from where it’s kept in storage, he said. And any files that are scanned he said, are not word searchable.

While this rot exists today, it is the tale of Herman Wallace that speaks to me. Herman’s case is famous  in some social activist circles. He was one of the Angola 3, held in solitary confinement for 41 years…for a crime he didn’t commit.

Herman’s was finally set free, dying three days after his release, earning a story in the New York Times.

If the case of Philando Castile should gnaw at the heart of every American who believes in freedom, the case of Herman Wallace should haunt our dreams, raising serous questions about how far we have still to go to achieve they system of government and law our Constitution describes.

The Atlantic detailed some of the appalling facts of the errant conviction of Herman Wallace for the murder of a prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola:

  • Blood & fingerprints at the scene didn’t match the defendants
  • Each of the eyewitnesses claimed to be sole eye witness and none of their tales was consistent with the other
  • One “witness” later testified to being beaten during interrogation for the case
  • One “witness” was legally blind
  • One “witness” was schizophrenic
  • One was charged with another murder, using his testimony in the Wallace case to garner favor for leniency on that charge
  • Other inmates testified Wallace was not present at the murder
  • All 4 defendants, including Wallace, had the same counsel. One co-defendant flipped to the prosecution’s side after striking a deal with the warden of the prison during trial. Defense counsel was given a mere 30 minutes to prepare to cross-examine his former client
  • Exculpatory testimony and evidence was withheld from the defense
  • Wallace’s counsel failed to appeal the verdict after conviction

After that farce of a trial, triggered by an unconstitutional indictment that led to Wallace’s eventual release decades later, he and Albert Woodfox lived in solitary confinement…in perpetuity. The third member of the Angola 3, Robert King, eventually joined them in solitary for the same crime, even though he wasn’t even in Angola when the murder took place.

The uniting factor between Wallace, Woodfox, and King?

They were part of the Black Panthers, having joined the organization while incarcerated as part of protesting truly horrific and inhumane prison conditions.

Horrific and inhumane?

Yes, and that’s being s polite.

Angola was a Third World shit hole meets Jim Crow; known infamously as the “bloodiest prison in America” for its history of prisoner violence and rape:

The prison’s roots go back to 1880, when a former Confederate major purchased a plantation called Angola, so named for the country where the region’s slaves came from. He began storing prisoners in the former slave quarters. After stories of brutality leaked from its walls, the state took control of the prison. Unfortunately, conditions didn’t improve.

In 1943, a former prisoner penned in an exposing series of articles about various abuses at Angola, including this one about a warden who’d roam with a three-foot leather strip to lash the inmates. “[He] raised it over his head, with both hands, and brought it down with a sharp pop like a pistol shot on the naked man’s back. One … two … three … twenty; the count goes beyond thirty … the man moans, pleads for mercy, calls on God. The captain tells him: ‘You bettah call on someone closer to you—someone who kin help you!’”

Conditions got so bad in the 1950s that 31 inmates sliced their Achilles tendons to bring attention to their poor treatment. In the following decades, sexual slavery was common place and gun-welding prisoners patrolled as guards called “khaki-backs.” In the early ‘70s, an average of 12 prisoners were stabbed to death each year.

Set aside that heinous, nauseous level of “you might be ‘free’ but we’re still going to keep you down, boy” racism that allows such a plantation-as-prison construct, and consider 31 inmates reached the point they believed slicing their own Achilles tendons was better than the status quo!

I’d join the Black Panthers too in their shoes.

Here’s the key point though, because the Black Panthers had their own controversial history: regardless of any concern people may have about the Black Panthers, part of the point of the United States is we’re not supposed to imprison people for political beliefs. We fought a war against that kind of tyranny for God’s sake.

Except we didn’t root all that tyranny out of our flawed humanity. The wages of our nation’s original sin of slavery are not yet behind us.

Wallace’s attorney argued clearly in that NY Times obituary piece:

George Kendall, who was a lawyer for Mr. Wallace and who confirmed the death, said in an interview that his client’s original conviction was “a travesty” based on shoddy evidence, and that the men had been kept in solitary confinement because they had been members of the Black Panthers, the black nationalist group. Officials worried “that they would organize the prison,” he said.

What else explains the lengths at which prison officials went to beat, badger, and bribe other convicts into testifying against Wallace and Woodfox? What else explains holding men in solitary confinement for 41 years?

Wallace said as much:

 [Angola] warden Burl Cain offered to release Woodfox and Wallace back into the general population if they renounced their political views and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

Uh…

What. The. Fuck?

I see we leaped to limiting both political and religious freedom as tools of the state here.

Importantly, Cain confirmed the motivation:

In a 2008 deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of [Angola prison guard] Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “Okay, I would still keep him in CCR [solitary confinement]…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them.”

It’s tough to speculate on what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would think of a system holding people in solitary confinement as political prisoners in the 21st century, but I’d wager they wouldn’t be amused. Hamilton in particular would likely be enraged.

Yet, that’s what the Angola 3 were: political prisoners.

The scurrilous Cain was warden of Angola from 1995 to 2015, resigning after a series of shady deals and shenanigans with use of inmate labor. Cain’s behavior in our modern era belies the excuse we might comfort ourselves with that deplorable, racist behavior is a vestige of the past and we can easily presume it’s behind us.

On that score, let’s return to the story of Herman Wallace. He was belatedly diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer while incarcerated; the disease by then being it’s own death sentence. Yet, Louisiana rejected requests for compassionate release. As if the bed-ridden, dying Wallace was somehow a danger to society at that point.

Regardless, a federal judge ultimately over-turned Wallace’s indictment for murder and ordered him released. Deplorably, Louisiana officials remained obstinate:

For a while Tuesday evening, it looked as though Wallace wouldn’t be released. First, supporters said Elayn Hunt Warden Howard Prince left to eat dinner, claiming he couldn’t allow Wallace’s release because he’d already left the grounds. But a federal judge ordered him back and after another hour of wrangling, Wallace emerged from the gates of the prison in the back of an ambulance.

Indeed, the federal judge had to threaten the state prison system with contempt and order Wallace released that evening before he was ultimately freed and transported via ambulance to his brief life after prison.

Everything about the conduct of multiple officials in disparate parts of the criminal justice system in the handling of the case of Herman Wallace imply, often not very subtly, that they were more interested in sticking it to a black man with uncomfortable political beliefs than any sort of real justice.

As icing on that cruel, bitter cake, they re-indicted Wallace on his death bed:

Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Wallace had been transported into hospice care at Wennerstrom’s home, a newly-convened grand jury in West Feliciana re-indicted Wallace on the murder charge.

West Feliciana District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla confirmed the reindictment Friday morning, saying the grand jury featured six women and at least one black member, an older man roughly Wallace’s age.

D’Aquilla said no court date would have been set until December, long after friends and family expected Wallace to live. But D’Aquilla denied the move was political, saying only “we just had concerns about compassion issues.”

D’Aquilla maintained his stance that Wallace was guilty of Miller’s murder, however, saying the federal judge only overturned the grand jury indictment and not his 1974 conviction.

“Compassion”?

I think someone misspelled “vindictive assholes.” Who spends public resources re-indicting someone on their death bed for an alleged crime 40 years ago after a federal judge orders said person’s release?

As you ponder what might motivate such behavior, consider what Wallace’s fellow member of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox experienced: daily strip searches and body cavity inspections. Treatment so ludicrous it was the source of litigation:

Jerry Goodwin, the warden at David Wade Correctional Center, where Woodfox is imprisoned, testified to U.S. District Court Judge James J. Brady that it is the prison’s policy to perform “visual body cavity searches” every time a maximum security inmate enters or leaves his tier.

Sheridan England, a member of Woodfox’s legal team, asked Goodwin why his client should undergo the searches, since he remains shackled and under constant watch by at least two guards during his time off the tier.

Woodfox’s was eventually freed after copping a deal with prosecutors last year to cease their ongoing appeals after the third time federal courts overturned his conviction. Woodfox is free today and recently the subject of a National Geographic special with Morgan Freeman.

Meanwhile, lest we think the dated mistreatment of now old and dead men are behind us, the insanity at Angola continues today. A new death row cell block was opened with completely inadequate cooling for the oppressive, muggy heat of Louisiana’s summers, creating indoor heat indexes so brtual and dangerous as to warrant litigation of over cruel and unusual punishment.

That was in 2013. Just last year the federal judge overseeing the case expressed exasperation with the failure of Louisiana officials to address the problem, including spending more on legal fees fighting the case than the estimated cost of adding sufficient cooling solutions to the cell block in question.

And Angola is not alone in Louisiana:

  • The Orleans Parish Prison was placed under a federal consent decree in 2013 to implement “widespread reforms” in “a jail complex notorious for inmate violence, frequent escapes, poor mental health care and inmate deaths”
  • Neighboring St. Tammany Parrish faced its own federal consent decree in 2012:

About 15 months after its launch, a federal investigation into conditions at the St. Tammany Parish jail found that the complex did not provide adequate mental health care or suicide prevention measures to its prisoners

  • In 2014, a man on death row was released after the vacating of a murder conviction of which he was innocent. He spent 30 years in prison for the erroneous conviction
  • And just this year, a man was released after spending nearly eight years in jail for a non-violent criminal charge that never went to trial:

When Kevin Smith was jailed on a drug charge in New Orleans in 2010, Blockbuster was still renting DVDs and President Barack Obama was still trying to pass his signature health care bill.

Smith’s case never went to a jury. On Monday, 2,832 days after he was locked up, Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier ordered Smith’s release, bowing to an appeals court ruling that prosecutors had violated his right to a speedy trial.

Un-fucking-believable.

Eight years in prison awaiting trial. In today’s America.

Here’s a fact that should trouble the hell out of every American who believes in a fair justice system. A fact I haven’t spent much time on in the overall scheme of this post thus far: every example I’ve cited involves a black man.

Black men, denied justice in the Deep South…and across our country.

Black men convicted of rape they didn’t commit.

Black men convicted of murder they didn’t commit.

Black men shot to death during a traffic stop while complying with a police officer’s commands.

Black men held in solitary confinement for decades.

Black men punished in prison for decades simply for their political beliefs.

To paraphrase the stunning closing argument by “Jake Brigance” (played by Matthew McConaughey) in a Time to Kill:

Can you picture those black men?

Can you picture them spending 23 hours a day in a 6×9 cell for decades for crimes they didn’t commit?

Can you picture them bleeding to death in the passenger seat of a car on the side of the road?

Can you picture it?

Now imagine they’re white.

What would you do then?

What everyone can do to help with mental health

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Suicide victim Madison Holleran. Image credit: ESPN.

Sometimes the best thing you can read or watch is something that jars you to your core.

Not the thing that makes you comfortable or happy, but a tale that leaves you speechless.

Those are the stories that make you think. That motivate you to action. And change your perspective.

I read one recently: “Split Image,” a recounting about the death by suicide of a University of Pennsylvania track athlete. A key focus of the deeply-reported story was the stark dichotomy between the Madison Holleran’s social media and her inner turmoil. That’s important, but something else hit me hard in the telling: the seeming lack of a place or person where Madison could bare her soul.

This was a young woman struggling with a hidden problem: a profound dichotomy between the life trajectory she had carved out for herself as a successful student and athlete in high school versus the severe absence of happiness she found in living the fruits of that trajectory in college. Add in any level of proclivity for mental illness and that’s a dangerous cocktail.

Yet, you would never know it by looking at her, as is so often the case with mental illness.

There is a deeper issue here than the long struggle to raise awareness of mental health issues and eliminate the societal stigma associated with talking it, let alone confessing one’s own challenges in that area.

Here’s why:

Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes. But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.

She started seeing a therapist during Thanksgiving break [before she committed suicide the following January] and would continue seeing the woman through winter break. The closest Madison came to a diagnosis was “battling anxiety.”

Everyone now agrees that Madison was depressed, though she had never previously exhibited symptoms. (Depression exists on [her father] Jim’s side of the family.) Something had changed with her brain chemistry. She was not seeing the world in the same way she had before. She had lost weight too, had become so thin as to appear sick.

The day before Madison returned to Penn for spring semester, she had a session with her therapist that Jim also attended. She admitted to having suicidal thoughts. “If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t act them out,” her doctor said. “Either call me or call someone in your family.”

Madison nodded.

As a family, they had never talked about suicide. Jim never considered it a real possibility — just the dramatic ending to someone else’s story. As Carli explains: “Other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad and the day after she was gone.”

Jim feared that speaking about suicide would make its likelihood greater. He didn’t raise the subject as he and Madison drove back to Philadelphia.

Mental illness is scary. It can be down right terrifying. It isn’t easy to understand. And that’s before you factor in the complex, multi-layer filter of having a loved-one battle such demons.

I’ve had family members battle mental illness. There are few things that will leave you feeling more helpless than attempting wrapping you arms around what they’re feeling.

Speaking about such struggles out loud is scary and intimidating as hell.

It’s no wonder a teen in a situation like Madison felt she didn’t have someone to turn to when her thoughts spiraled to a terrible place.

Does she turn to her parents, who were no doubt reveling in her “success” as a student-athlete?

Does she turn to fellow students, where the fear of rejection from peers could be overwhelming?

Does she turn to some other important figure in her life such as a current or former coach, teacher, or extended family member?

Who knows. Each case is different for the sufferer of mental illness even feeling like there’s a viable choice in any of those options.

That’s what jars me. Thinking about giving people opportunities to bare their soul. To have an option besides leaping off a nine-story parking garage to their death.

As uncomfortable as it is, a clear takeaway of Madison’s story is she didn’t feel comfortable baring her darkest thoughts to her family. Does that mean her family failed her? Probably not, but they likely could have made  different choices…which virtually every family suffering through such an event could find in their own honest hindsight.

Indeed, family can be important. But, even more important are those spaces outside the family  where someone feels willing to take the risk of sharing some of their demons.

Even the greatest achievers in our society struggle with this. Sometimes mightily.

Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest Olympian in history, landed his ass in rehab in 2014 for a host of issues, including wishing his life was over, prior to his swan song, 2016 Olympic games:

 “My brother was like a scared little boy on that trip [to rehab],” says [Michael’s sister] Hilary. Once there, the then 29-year-old hero of three Olympic Games was left alone, stripped of the personality that had publicly defined him. “Hug-hug, kiss-kiss, turn in my phone and go to my room,” says Phelps, “It’s probably the most afraid I’ve ever felt in my life.”

About five days into his stay, Phelps says, he began to loosen his resistance…“I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach,” he says. “One of them was that for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being. I would be in sessions with complete strangers who know exactly who I am, but they don’t respect me for things I’ve done, but instead for who I am as a human being. I found myself feeling happier and happier. And in my group, we formed a family. We all wanted to see each other succeed. It was a new experience for me. It was tough. But it was great.”

Michael Phelps. Olympic legend.

Michael Phelps. Fucked up dude.

That’s why talking about mental health is important. Even the great and resource-rich among us don’t know where to turn with these issues. It took Phelps landing in rehab for 45 days to start sorting his shit out.

Now, he’s appearing in “Angst,” a film on the often unpleasant, let’s-kick-this-under-the-carpet-while-not-making-eye-contact issue of anxiety and depression. In doing so, Phelps is explicitly setting permission for others to talk about it.

Permission is essential. Permission to be vulnerable. Permission to be able to say out loud to another human being, “I’m not ok.”

Author and athlete Rich Roll set a standard for vulnerability in Finding Ultra, and continues it to this day on his podcast, which recently featured the tear-inducing tale of the otherwise Tony Robbins-like Lewis Howes, describing coming to terms as an adult with being raped in a bathroom at five years old. It’s a must-listen episode, all related to Lewis’ new book about the many emotions men often avoid dealing with and discussing, The Mask of Masculinity.

But.

Books and podcasts are one thing. Intentionally setting permission for others in your life is essential.

There were times in my life where I was able to create those kind of spaces, especially as an assistant swim coach in college and as a manager of people in a large company. At various points I ended up having some unexpected and very serious conversations with people that had less to do with college athletics or work. They had to do with life.

A swimmer ready to quit the sport, on the spot, during a Christmas-break training trip in Florida. Another swimmer ready to throw in the towel because they weren’t enjoying the sport anymore. A co-worker breaking town in tears in my cubicle. A professional acquaintance getting raw about a public controversy that made future employment a challenge.

In almost every case, I don’t know exactly where that person is today. I don’t know what impact those conversations had over time. What I do know is they were totally outside the guardrails of what might be typically expected in each of those environments.

Here’s why I think they happened: something about each case included an environment where the person knew, or could take the risk that, there would be no judgement in saying something uncomfortable.

Recently I had a friend get real about depression and suicide-related thoughts. That’s heavy. I’m glad somewhere, probably without meaning to, something in how we talked set that permission.

None of us can solve the problems of all the Madison Holleran’s of the world. Nor should we be the solution, that’s for each person to work through, preferably with the support of mental health professionals. Yet, we can create environments where our humanity is so visible and evident that those in pain become willing say something out loud that might not otherwise dare to utter. Because from that moment of confession comes hope for change and improvement.

I say that because I’ve had to stare down that confession. To set up an appointment with my primary care doctor to say, “I think I’m showing signs of depression.” To end up seeing a psychiatrist and later a counselor as my treatment progressed, because yes, I was clinically depressed.

As much as professional treatment helped address a number of things and got me on a trajectory to be given a clean bill of health, it would have been a lot better to have been able to talk more openly about those issues before I was diagnosed.

To be fair, I had a few, friends with whom I shared some of the key issues impacting my depression, but I hesitated to share the story in full. I would do that differently now.

That’s because I know deep down inside after emerging from the other side of my mental health taking a downward turn that talking to others is important. Those that are still on the far side of that challenge need more spaces where they can feel safe to say utter words like:

  • “Help.”
  • “This isn’t right.”
  • “I’m not ok.”
  • “Here’s what really eating at me.”

Do it.

Set permission.

Set the example by being vulnerable yourself.

Listen.

Make clear you give a damn.

Maybe just look someone in the eye and genuinely ask how they’re doing.

I’d rather do any of those things than learn someone in my life reached the point where leaping nine stories to their death was a better option.

Why I Tough Mudder

Eric and Ryan

My great friend, Ryan Hodgson, and I after finishing our 2nd Tough Mudder together.

 

You are free to think thoughts of worry or joy, and whatever you use will attract the same kind back to you. Worry attract worry. Joy attracts joy.  – Rhonda Byrne

 

This weekend I’m going to do one of my favorite things: run a Tough Mudder. This one, outside of Charlotte, NC, will be my sixth, including three this year. Despite the challenges of the last several months,  I’ve made it a priority to do things that fill me with joy, including running Tough Mudders and seeing old friends.

There’s something incredibly valuable in chasing joy. When you find it, that joy ricocheting through your heart multiples to other areas of your life. It puts you in a better energetic state and attracts better things to you. For all the hurdles I’ve confronted in recent months, experiencing old friends and being in the Tough Mudder community has been one of the best things for me. And that joy is slowly multiplying.

Perhaps you’re saying: wait, Eric, Tough Mudder is a 10-12 mile mud run filled with 20 or so special-forces inspired obstacles. What does that have to do with community?

Everything.

The thrill of doing a Tough Mudder isn’t merely the physical challenge, though that is splendid and rewarding. The true joy of doing it is being part of a community of great people.

Don’t believe me? Watch this from Tough Mudder Philly in May of this year (where me and my buddy Tim make an appearance in our red shirts during an emotional video):

One of my favorite moments of every Tough Mudder race is the pre-start pep talk, as each starting wave receives a delightfully rousing encouragement – along with some basic event instruction – before being unleashed on the course. Here’s an example:

Tough Mudder isn’t a race, it’s an ethos.

Don’t just challenge yourself, sometimes you need to do things that scare you. Because that’s how you grow. And while you’re growing, lend someone else a hand so you grow together.

Don’t just race the Tough Mudder course, be a teammate. To everyone. Except the first wave of competitive racers looking for their qualification for World’s Toughest Mudder, no one’s time is recorded. The event is about challenging yourself, finishing, and helping fellow Mudders, because at some point, everyone will need help with an obstacle.

Witness:

At every Tough Mudder,  I and my various teammates spend time helping fellow Mudders at many obstacles. Some of the regulars requiring a hand are Mount Everest 2.0, Pyramid Scheme, and Mud Mile 2.0  This is what Tough Mudder means. Not how fast you are, not how strong you are, but how you help your fellow Mudders challenge themselves and finish that beast.

And beast it is.

Forget your 5k or half marathon pace…or however you run. Tough Mudder typically means run for a half mile, or a mile, maybe even 2. Encounter an obstacle. Maybe wait in line at said obstacle. Pound through it. Repeat. Over, and over, and over.

Depending on the course, how crowded it is, and the pace you hold, you’ll likely be out there 3-4 hours once you factor in stations to rehydrate, refuel, and use a muddy as hell porta-potty.

Here’s the deal: as much fun is the course is, Tough Mudder is about challenging yourself to do something that’s scary. There is an obstacle that scares almost everyone. Pick your poison: Funky Monkey the Revolution, King of the Swingers, or Kong.

Can you take down that which you fear? I conquered Funky Monkey the Revolution and Stage 5 Clinger for the first time each outside of Philly this May. The feeling was glorious. And that’s what Mudders stare down in their own way each time they start the course.

To conquer a Tough Mudder for your first time? It’s phenomenal. My own in 2013 was one of the best days of my life.

2013 Tough Mudder team

Me with the rest of the “Pain Killer” team sponsored by LifeWise Health Plan of Washington in 2013. A jubilant day. We slaughtered that course.

One of the best days of your life? God damn straight it was.

Mine was the culmination of taking on a random invitation from a friend (Ryan, pictured at the top of the post) to challenge myself. That started a journey which included me getting back in shape, losing forty pounds (!), and eventually going vegan. My life was some tough shit when I started Tough Mudder training. By the time that Tough Mudder was done, my life was dramatically better.

Granted, life has not been without significant troubles since (see recent challenges), but I owe more to Tough Mudder playing a role in changing the long-term trajectory of my life than I can put in words.

Perhaps now you can see why Tough Mudder matters to me.

This Tough Mudder will be with the smallest team with which I’ve tackled a race. Just me and my good friend Tim.

2017 Tough Mudder Philly

My crew from Tough Mudder Philly, with my red-headed friend, Tim, in the middle with me.

What’s going to happen? Hell if I know. But, we’ll challenge ourselves. Help others. And savor every moment as we give that course in Charlotte our all.

I’m looking forward to the joy at the end of that course. Because no matter the physical challenge and pain involved, joy it will be.

I would take a knee

cowboys jones kneel.jpg

I would have taken a knee if I was in the NFL on Sunday.

I have been a Republican almost my entire life. And I would have taken a knee.

I volunteered for Republican campaigns. I worked for a Republican U.S. Senator. I worked for Republican candidates. I proudly served in George W. Bush’s Administration. And I would have taken a knee.

Until Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, as well as the laughably bad GOP attempts at repeal at replace, I considered myself a member of that party. And I would have taken a knee.

There are three reasons why:

It’s about the team.

Set aside the whole issue of race, the flag, and all of that politically-loaded shouting for a minute. If you’re an NFL player, an unpopular President spoke out against your teammates and peers; against them exercising their right of free speech, calling them a “son of a bitch” in the process.

The President is the last person who should be putting boundaries around free speech and calling for a private citizen to be fired for exercising that speech (the whole we wanted to avoid a totalitarian monarchy when establishing the Constitution being more than a little important). That an unpopular President with a known history of inflammatory racial rhetoric threw down the gauntlet guaranteed a more unified response from NFL teams and players, regardless of their other beliefs.

Imagine you’re a Seattle Seahawk. This is a team founded on doing things differently,  producing a vibrant culture that celebrates each other, most vividly on display via Peter King’s post-Super Bowl 48 observations…including the “we all we got…we all we need!” chant that says a lot of how teams unite in such environments.

Couple that culture with existing Seahawks’ dynamics, with Michael Bennett’s response to Charlottesville, and later very public incident with Las Vegas police, as well as both Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin speaking out passionately on issues related to race.  Whose back are you going to have? Your teammate with whom you train with daily as well as compete with and for in a physically and mentally violent sport…or Cheetoh Jesus, typing away with his tiny hands on Twitter?

You’re going to stand, or kneel, with your team.

Justin Britt already made a significant statement earlier this year, when he, a white player, began putting his hand on Michael Bennett’s shoulder while Britt himself stood for the national anthem. That was before the short fingered, vulgarian with atrocious hair and a record of not condemning white supremacists went on a tirade against NFL players. No wonder so many players, coaches, and owners, took action at games across the country.

I think about my own experience competing and coaching a college swim team. I would still run through brick walls for some of those with whom I trained and competed. If while I served as an assistant coach, a grandstanding, asshat of a Governor of Virginia had, say, said one of my athletes couldn’t appropriately express their political beliefs while at a team function, I wouldn’t care what the issue was or on which side I stood. I’d walk into a team meeting and ask those targeted how the team could best support them, then figure it out from there with the rest of the team.

That’s where this has evolved into something more than protests against injustice or inequality, as the Colin Kaepernicks and Michael Bennetts of the world started. It’s about the right to protest, especially against an appalling son of a bitch that presumes the moral and legal authority to say otherwise. And most definitely, it’s about having your teammates back. That’s why so many teams were fully united in their action and/or supportive of those that chose to protest, with very often the team’s owners at their sides.

It’s not about the flag or the anthem, it’s about living up to what those things stand for.

A few years ago I bet I would have found myself  on the other side of this issue. Yet, the proliferation of cell phone videos capturing the police mistreatment of people of color was my tipping point in thinking about the issue differently, even as I know and respect many people in law enforcement for their good hearts and service.

The unholy outcome of the Philando Castile case, for example, should gnaw incessantly at the heart of everyone committed to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. And yet, the more you spend time listening to people of color talk about these issues, the more each of them invariably has their own story of overt discrimination or oppression.

Perhaps listening to the experiences of Michael Bennet, Richard Sherman, et. al gave me some additional perspective. I think moving from Seattle to New Orleans changed things too.

Life in the suburbs of a predominantly white metro area, where the largest minority are prosperous communities of Asian-Americans, leaves racism being a rather abstract, intellectual topic. Going to college in Virginia changed that perspective a bit. So too did working at the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of improving education for traditionally disadvantaged students add some depth as well, especially as I far-too-often encountered the institutional, discriminating belief that poor children couldn’t learn like their wealthier, white peers.

Fast forward to New Orleans, where whatever the legal construct in which we live, the lasting impact of decade upon decade upon decade of direct and indirect racism will give you a jolting slap across the face if you dare to lift your head and cast an open-minded gaze upon it.

Want to see true poverty, driven primarily by race? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see entire neighborhoods left behind by the benign neglect of decades of pervasive white racism? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see the impact of decade after decade of a shitty education system that gave its students precious little hope to succeed, let alone improve their lives? Come to New Orleans.

Want to see society still struggling to deal with the vestiges of racist behavior (such as a black men choosing not to look white women in the eye for fear of the consequences)? Come to New Orleans.

But, wait, you say. Those NFL athletes are spoiled and rich. How dare they kneel!

Spoiled?

Richard Sherman is from Compton.

Compton!

Former Seahawk Mack Strong tells the tale of his flight from Georgia to Seattle when he joined the Seahawks out of college. He couldn’t afford proper luggage. Some of his belongings were in a trash bag. When people started laughing at it at baggage claim he sat and waited for everyone to leave before he picked it up and went on his way.

Watch the NFL draft and you’ll hear many a similar tale of hard circumstances. Pay close attention to the media coverage of any team as rookies from college join the team and you’ll hear more.

Yes, NFL players are well-paid (for their usually short careers). Yet, many of them hail from the very opposite of spoiled backgrounds. And many of those of color have additional tales of what they experienced as a black male.

One of the other tipping points on this issue for me was reading about former King County Executive Ron Sims’ experience with the issue of driving while black. Think you’re pristine, progressive Seattle? Hardly.

And if Seattle is still fucking this issue up, can you imagine what it’s like in older parts of the country where racism’s roots are more ingrained and insidious by historical patterns of societal behavior?

Wait.

You can’t.

Neither can I.

The truth is based on the demographics of my Facebook friends (the primary traffic driver to my blog), most people reading this post won’t have the faintest idea of what being black in America is like.

I don’t.

Yeah, we talk about ideas we believe in. I’m a history and political science major who spent a lot of time studying what our country stands for, especially as we have traveled the very imperfect journey from our founding to today. For God’s sake, I wrote an entire post extolling the virtues of Alexander Hamilton, long before the Hamilton music leaped into popularity.

The military historian in me also thinks very highly of our troops and our veterans. The men and women of our Armed Services have been a source of freedom, liberation, and protection to countless peoples across this globe. Despite their inevitable human imperfections and our imperfections as a country, I love them and why they serve, and in some cases, died in that service.

I love this country and what it stands for. Deeply.

And I believe we have more work to do.

It’s about listening

One of the most searing (and correct) critiques in modern society today is declaring those who can not abide dissenting or contrarian views on college campuses to be “snowflakes.” Places of higher learning should not be places where one needs a “safe space” from the reality of our world in which views and beliefs differ, sometimes mightily. Indeed, places of higher learning should shine a spotlight on those differences, allowing people to broaden their perspectives and learn more.

Here’s where I get to some bad news for some of my friends on the right who I have seen react vociferously to events related to the NFL in recent days. In leaping to condemn someone for taking an opposing view or an action different than that you would choose, in declaring you’re done with your previously chosen team and the NFL, you’re acting like…the very snowflake on a college campus you otherwise rightly condemn.

You’re better than that. We’re better than that.

Maybe we should all listen a little more. This bit about Seahawks coach Pete Carroll responding to and working with Trump supporters on the team through all this struck me:

“Directly, what I did is I hugged them,” he said.  “I talked to them, and expressed that I appreciate where they’re coming from, and what they feel with no other thought but to accept them.”

That response explains why lots of players enjoy playing for Carroll. It’s called empathy — a respectful sensitivity to another’s feelings, as well as the ability to listen without judgment. It’s a rare capacity in any leadership post, and much more elusive in an industry where manhood is often defined by the sort of faux-macho bluster often exhibited by the president.

The approach was probably important in persuading Trump supporters — or the merely fearful — to set aside their reluctance to create at least a public unanimity. Or, in old-school parlance, take one for the team.

Maybe instead of losing our ever-loving minds about a short, peaceful protest before a sporting event we could spend more time doing that: listening to people with a different point of view. Listening to the their thoughts, their experiences, and why they believe what they believe.

I have a friend who is an anarchist. Straight up, burn it all down: capitalism, government, society…you name it. Yet, we’re friends and can have serious conversations, respecting where the other person is coming from. The fact we met while both working at a health insurance company tells you the world has more grays areas than the jarring black and white world of “you agree with me or you’re evil!” social media and politics into which our society sometimes descends.

What’s the key with my anarchist friend? We listen to each other.

Did any of us out there hope for a President picking this fight with the NFL and its players now, especially with all the other domestic and foreign policy issues at hand?

Safe to say, no.

But, he did.

So, we can continue to yell and spit at each other and think ill of those with whom we disagree. Or maybe…just maybe…we could take advantage of this opportunity to listen to those who are saying we still haven’t yet reached the full maturity of the lofty, important idea that all men are created free and have equal protection under the law.

We’re human. Painfully so. This great experiment in democracy called America has been so very imperfect. We fought a horribly bloody civil war just to settle the fact we shouldn’t be enslaving other human beings. It took us another hundred years to better address the legal rights of those previously enslaved. And roughly fifty years later, we still have a lot of work to do.

That’s why we should listen. And that’s why I’d have happily taken a knee with my teammates, especially given the despicable display from our President on this important issue.

Tearing away the protective cover of my soul

quotes-fear

What you are you afraid of in life?

Pain? Being alone? Losing possessions? Failure? Relationships going bad? Job loss?

There are many answers to the question. We all have one. And if we claim we’re not afraid of something in our lives then we’re probably lying to ourselves…and others.

I’ve been afraid of a lot of shit in my life, including every option listed above.

Fear of pain? Yep.

Fear of being alone? Yep.

Fear of losing possessions? Yep.

Fear of failure? Yep.

Fear of relationships going bad? Yep.

Fear of job loss? Yep.

Guess what? Not anymore.

God damn I’ve been in some pain. Most of us have; it’s part of the human experience. I’ve had particular doses of pain in the last year. And I’m not only still standing…I’m smiling.

I’ve feared being alone. And now I have been. Has it been easy? Not always. But, it was been liberating and I’m better off for it.

I feared losing possessions and material wealth. Months of being unexpectedly unemployed in combination with other twists and turns in life have left me tapping into retirement savings. Not ideal. But, the world hasn’t ended, and I believe in my ability to earn way more in the future.

I’ve feared failure. Over the last several years that has begun to fade, which is no surprise to some people that have been around me over that time. Fear of failure can be a good thing. It can motivate us to achieve something greater and better. But, it becomes no good if that fear overtakes the drive as a dominant voice. Either way, I’ve made some big bets in the last couple years. They didn’t play out like I hoped or wanted. By some definitions I failed.

That’s nice. I’ll come back even stronger.

I’ve feared relationships going bad, and I have the failed relationships to prove it. There’s zero pride in that, and in dark moments, a lot of shame in that hard reality. There are lessons to learn, regrets to process, and learning to absorb as I take another step forward each day.

I’ve feared job loss, propelled by years of being the family bread-winner combined with unproductive thinking. Then, in the middle of a lot of shit going haywire – at least according to the norms of society – I got laid off. Good times.

Yet, being laid off forced me to explore the lost art of truly defining oneself by who you are, not by what you do. Having the space to do that has helped. But, it has also been a necessary and deeply meaningful exercise. Spending time with myself. Digging deeper on personal development. Writing. Working out like a beast. Traveling. Exploring a wonderful new city in New Orleans. And best of all, spending a lot of time with old friends and new.

Despite the challenges of unemployment and financial curveballs, I’m more at peace than I’ve been…maybe ever.

Here’s what else I’ve learned through all of that:

  • It’s going to be ok. The world will not end when big things in life don’t turn out as expected. It doesn’t even end when your world gets turned upside down. It might be unpleasant, perhaps very. But, you will survive, learn, and move forward.
  • Truly letting go of the past is glorious. Really. Let it fucking go. I used to dwell a lot on the past. It got me…nothing. Acknowledge the past. It happened. Figure out what you can learn from it and what choices you might make differently in the future. Then move forward.
  • Sometimes you have to just slow down and breathe. Sure, I have a bias there because I practice yoga regularly and have been through teacher training. I have a strong appreciation for what stilling the mind via breath can do. And it has helped me tremendously in more anxious moments than I care to count the last several months. When negative thoughts have begun to take over my mind, I’ll focus on my breath – perhaps with a mantra or prayer thrown in – and tune everything else out. What that’s done, I’m invariably in a better place than when the process started.

All of that, the fear, the tumult, and the learning are heavy stuff. It’s not easy to write about. It requires a lot of vulnerability.

I had someone tell me recently I “live out loud…raw, real, and vulnerable.” There’s some truth to that, though there is always more to be told about and by a person than what they talk about online, including social media. What I accept about that friend’s kind observation is I do put myself out there more than many other people.

Holding back is not uncommon in our society, or humanity in general. We hesitate to share our true selves. There are many reasons for that, some of them the type of fears that I mentioned at the start of this post. Some people are just more private. And getting truly honest about what you really think and believe means other people might disagree or think less of you.

Maybe.

And maybe those people who respond negatively should matter less to us if that’s their take.

I recently read “Finding Ultra,” a memoir-like gem of a look into the journey of Rich Roll; alcoholic, overweight lawyer turned vegan distance athlete, whose stunning transformation has helped propel him to some vividly awe-inspiring athletic feats…after the age of 40 and beyond.

The man is a beast and someone I admire a great deal. For all that, what I appreciate about Finding Ultra and what Rich did in that book is he tore away the protective cover of his soul; that last barrier inside us that stops us from revealing who we are to the rest of the world.

I’m a regularly listener of Rich’s podcast, which is splendid in its ability to have interesting conversations with guests that get raw and real. Yet, Finding Ultra throws gasoline on the fire of revealing the personal and emotional aspects of Rich’s painful and difficult journey. It’s a great and inspiring read.

Rich is currently working on a 2nd edition of Finding Ultra, expanding on and updating some aspects of its tale. But, no matter the new text (which I look forward to immensely!), the essential part where Rich tore away the protective cover of his soul to share not just his story, but his true self, with readers is what gives the book magnificent power.

If there is any reason why I’m willing to write this kind of way about my own journey, as some of my friends on Facebook and Instagram have gotten a dose of in months gone by, it’s so what I share might have an impact on others. Maybe to give them the courage to make a leap in life. Maybe to soften with shared solace the dark edges of their own personal experience. Maybe for reasons that I’ll never know.

Someone out there is reading this and just had a shift, because I’ve begun tearing away the protective cover of my soul. That’s why this is worth it. To empower – or even nudge – someone into living the life they’re meant to live.

Start tearing. It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s downright painful. But, it’s worth it.

How visualization helped me through my biggest professional challenge

Premera cyber

The power of visualization. Reality or bullshit? I say reality.

Usually when people talk about it, they think about athletes visualizing the performance they want, especially elite athletes, such as Olympic medalists or top tier professionals who spend significant time on their craft beyond just the traditional training of the body to achieve greater things.

I say we should be applying it in all our lives. It’s powerful. It also takes time, something most of us don’t feel like we have. How to bridge that gap?

Here’s one tale of where I applied visualization, and intention, in my professional life at one of the busiest, most stressful times in my career. Many of my friends or professional colleagues in health care may remember it.

On March 17, 2015, my employer at the time, Premera Blue Cross, announced it had been the victim of a “sophisticated cyberattack,”  affecting roughly 10 million current and former customers and employees. I was the Vice President of Corporate Communications at the time, on point for leading the communications of the announcement and serving as executive spokesperson.

It would have been a big story by itself, but was coming just weeks after the 800 pound gorilla of Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers, Anthem, announced they had been hit with a cyberattack affecting over 80 million people. We knew that timely proximity would amplify national attention our announcement as part of a possible trend.

The weeks between the discovery of the attack and the announcement were condensed, fast-paced, and stressful as the small team of executives and others who would implement the announcement pounded through what needed to be done with the assistance of our outside Legal team and crisis communications counsel, all in a highly confidential environment. Those weeks are among the most intense I’ve experienced as a professional.

One of my challenges was balancing all that with the three things I needed to accomplish in my role:

  • Lead the communications efforts, including providing leadership to my team and others involved in the work
  • Provide communications counsel to the executive team grappling with this most consequential of business issues
  • Be the best possible corporate spokesperson I could be once we launched

Leading the communications work was one thing. There was a lot of hands-on work because of the small knowledge group aware of the issue, including invaluable guidance from our superlative legal counsel on the issue (thanks Ted Kobus!). Our biggest challenge collectively was the bone-crushing amount of work to be done in a short time to be ready to launch. To this day, I owe a debt to Nicola King on my team for her performance in the weeks leading up to announcement day.

Providing counsel to the executive team was also a manageable challenge requiring only an incremental increase in my typical job. Working with executive-level professionals has been part of my entire career, something I’ve grown into and enjoy. The stakes were high on this one, but comfortable.

That last need of serving as executive spokesperson had some exceptionally high stakes. Our company’s reputation was on the line, both broadly as well as specifically with our largest customers – including names like Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks. How the announcement went, from right out of the gate, would have a big impact on how the company’s reputation — and business — fared moving forward. And the potential legal ramifications of the whole affair, including how we handled the announcement, were massive.

The corporate spokesman element is where I knew my energy needed to go. Not because I wasn’t up for it. I’m good on camera and with the media. It’s a skill honed throughout my career, and shaped by several rounds of great media training (thank you Scott Stanzel!). The stakes of this were bigger than anything else I had done professionally, including federal privacy laws that required our announcement be a press release in every media market in the country because of the scope of those impacted.

As the announcement day approached, my attention increased on those spokesperson duties, in part as the expansion of the knowledge group in the closing days before launch allowed others to handle tactical preparation and execution of key elements of the multi-audience effort, including some great work by my internal communications team led by Dana Robertson Halter. That’s when my intention and visualization process ramped up.

My role was both complicated and simple. Simple in that I was the executive spokesperson for the company for any and all news media, including print, radio, and TV. Complicated in that the daunting reputational impact of the issue paired with the significant legal ramifications required some serious finesse to say what the company could to inform those affected while also protecting our reputation, avoiding harming our legal position, and all while staying within the bounds of what federal law enforcement would also allow us to say because of their active involvement given of the particulars of the attack.

Because of the pace and volume of work, I had to be exceptionally purposeful about the time I spent visualizing and setting intention of what the executive spokesperson role would look like. I also had to do the work itself: honing messaging, sitting through briefings and joining executive discussions to understand the issue, then practicing — including on camera — so that when the time came, what I needed to know and say was locked and loaded in my brain. With all those professional responsibilities, my family, working out (important stress relief!), and being in yoga teacher training (an ill-timed coincidence that thankfully concluded days before the announcement), my time was had to be severely rationed.

Thus, it was more periodically putting a stake in the ground than spending hours like an elite athlete visualizing. Example: the announcement was on a Tuesday. During my early Monday morning gym workout that week I checked-in on Facebook, declaring “I will destroy this week.” Almost no one seeing that would know what it meant, but I was intentionally putting it out into the universe.

Another example: the announcement was scheduled for noon on that Tuesday, selected in part to allow for smooth tactical execution of a simultaneous announcement to millions of people in different audiences we’d be reaching that day. I arrived at work at about 7 am that day, Eminem’s “Monster” blaring on my headphones as I swaggered into the Executive Boardroom that had been converted into our war room for the announcement effort. Those actions were all on purpose. I was pumping myself up for the day.

I was the first to arrive in the boardroom that morning. The headphones stayed in to keep the music pumping, even as I went through some deep breathing exercises. I sat at the conference table for a bit, not working. Looking out the windows. Mentally visualizing. Preparing myself with more focus than any athletic competition in which I’ve participated, even collegiate swimming.

I had a number of tasks to accomplish that morning, including leadership functions to prepare and support others to do their jobs. Radiating calm to mitigate the stress of others and show belief in their ability to execute, even as many of them found out first thing that morning what had happened, what we as a company would announce that day, and what they needed to do to support that effort. Intermittently through all that I was visualizing. Visualizing with admittedly the cheesiest of examples.

If you’ve seen the movie “Speed” you might recall the scene when the hijacked bus driven by Sandra Bullock has to approach a gap in the freeway over which it will have to leap to the other side. If you remember the scene, you may recall as the bus approaches the gap, the law enforcement vehicles accompanying the bus during the hijacking episode peel off one-by-one, away from the bus, whose passengers must approach the unknown alone.

That was me. No one else would be in front of the inevitable deluge of TV cameras and radio and print reporters on the phone. I had to perform. When my company needed me most.

I would visualize that scene in “Speed,” then visualize myself walking out the glass doors into the lobby of our corporate headquarters as I went out to face the media that would come after the announcement. Just like the bus leaping over the gap on the freeway alone, I would step out those doors alone.

When that time came to walk down the stairs and through those doors, I actually had a smirk on my face and my heart and mind were calm. It was time. I was ready, and I knew it. That’s what visualization can do.

What happened next?

I killed those interviews.

All four TV stations in Seattle. A non-stop stream of interviews via phone with radio and print outlets, both national and local. From noon until our management call at 5 pm to sum up the day for the company’s leadership – many of whom learned the news themselves that morning given how tight our security protocols were – I was on. In the fastest, most intense flurry of media relations I’ve ever experienced.

I had to be. When the Wall Street Journal is peppering you with questions on the phone, when NPR is taping you for news to go across the country, when TV cameras are lined up to interview you, one after the other…there is no choice: you bring your best.

The unexpected result? A flurry of messages from friends and professional colleagues elsewhere with a thumbs up. Not just “hang in there,” but praise. Lots of it. Including from fellow PR pros, whose complimentary words I appreciated more than they know. A fellow executive had a former communications colleague reach out to him to say in part, “I don’t know who your guy is, but he’s doing great out there.”

I think that’s because I visualized myself performing well, on top of doing the work to be ready for it.

The point, however, isn’t the praise – though I remain deeply grateful for it. The point is that’s what visualization and intention-setting can do. That’s the lesson. It can bring out the best in you and what you’ve built to create, even when you don’t have hours to spend time on the visualization itself.

There are lots of resources to explore the topic at a more basic level, as well as taking a deeper-dive of the connection between quantum physics and human thought. Whether for sports, your professional life, or even personal, I recommend it. Highly.

Today, I’m staring down some big changes in my life that are significant and in some ways life-altering. What am I doing? Visualizing what I want, in the middle of grinding through the work to get through those changes.

Good luck on your own visualization path. May it help you succeed, mightily.

 

 

 

American Airlines got right what United got wrong

American Airlines got right what United got wrong

American Airlines recently had it’s own viral video problem. Nothing on the scale of United dragging a bleeding man off a plane, but still atrocious. For American, we can all stipulate that when a flight attendant is hollering at a customer, saying “come on, hit me!” after said flight attendant allegedly pulled a stroller violently from a mother holding a baby then things have probably gone to a place that makes crisis communications professionals — and most of humanity — cringe. Yet, there is something to learn from how American handled a tough situation well.

Understanding what United did wrong in its now famous PR fumble for the ages is key to understanding what went right for American:

  1. United justified itself with rules rather than responding with empathy
  2. United focused on itself, not the customer, in the CEO’s first statement
  3. United blamed the victim in an email to employees rather than be accountable

What United should have done was:

  1. Show empathy
  2. Focus on the customer
  3. Take responsibility

Perhaps no surprise then that American did in their response exactly what United should have done. Here’s the American statement, worth quoting in full:

We have seen the video and have already started an investigation to obtain the facts. What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident. We are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care. After electing to take another flight, we are taking special care of her and her family and upgrading them to first class for the remainder of their international trip.

The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.

American showed empathy

They acknowledged up front they had “seen the video” and “started an investigation,” but importantly didn’t wait to go further. The next sentence of the statement established empathy further — and focus on the customer — by declaring what they saw didn’t reflect their values or the way they expect customers to be treated. In short, the statement immediately aligned with the lay public’s reaction: this is wrong and something needs to be done about it.

Note, American threaded the needle by giving themselves some wiggle room in referring to what they saw in the video that was in the news, while still investigating the facts. That placates the lawyers who rightly will want to know if there are additional facts (and video) that mitigate or change the situation. Not likely in this incident, but an important consideration in managing legal risk in crisis communications, while also showing empathy and regret that the customer obviously had a bad experience.

American focused on the customer

Building on the empathy already established at the start of the statement, American responded directly to the customer saying they were “deeply sorry,” while notably declaring they had given her a first class upgrade for the remainder of the trip and were “taking special care of her and her family.” That statement assures the troubled viewer of the video that American is making things right.

Significantly, the sentence preceding the description of what American was doing to remedy things for their customer said “[w]e are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care.” [emphasis added]. That’s a subtle yet powerful statement of empathy and focus on the customer. A passenger is getting in a metal tube to be transported by a trained crew roughly 30,000 feet in the air to another part of the world. Yes, any customer is likely to feel that they’re “in your care,” not just part of a transaction. Acknowledging that fact was wise and effective.

American took accountability

From the start to the end of the statement American owned what was visible to any video viewer: a customer experience had gone south, with an employee of the company making a shockingly bad representation of the organization. As such, that employee rightly went under the bus: “removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.” All the more laudable on American’s part because they’ll inevitably have to fight the employee’s union, which already blamed the airline and passengers.

American’s timely public statement coincided with the airline visibly taking accountability on Twitter (where United notably flubbed), taking ownership in 140 characters, including linking to their statement:

Make that taking complete accountability:

The news media coverage of this incident with American, with its still troubling video, was nothing of what United endured. American protected its image in part by getting out quickly with an acceptable response before the media storm grew. That’s a stark contrast to United’s need for repeated statements over several days.

That speed to response allowed the company’s statement to be unattributed on its website and attributed to spokesperson Leslie Scott in direct media inquires. That’s a subtle yet huge communications win in protecting American’s reputation. You only want to use a senior executive’s voice, especially the CEO, when absolutely necessary in crisis, because the reputational risks escalate exponentially if those statements and/or interviews don’t accomplish the desired mission.

Example: I was VP of Corporate Communications at Premera Blue Cross when it announced a significant cyberattack in 2015. We knew the announcement would receive intense media attention nationally and locally, especially coming on the heels of another such announcement by Anthem Blue Cross just weeks prior. We, with input from some great outside advisers, deliberately chose to put me out front for the flurry of expected initial media inquires, even though the (still) CEO is a great communicator.

Thus, we still used an executive spokesperson for a non-stop stretch of media interviews over a couple days, but held the CEO in reserve. He taped a public video statement, was quoted in our press release, and announced the news internally, but did no live media interviews on the topic. We also owned the issue up front, apologized, and provided an immediate solution for customers. The result: the worst of the media storm was largely over in a couple news cycles, with no CEO interviews needed.

That’s exactly what American accomplished, sparring senior leadership from having to take on the risk of tough media interviews in a crisis, which is a credit to the American Airlines team. Don’t think that’s important? Ask Oscar Munoz at United.

In sum, an exceptional performance by the American Airlines team to respond quickly and effectively, mitigating the initial PR problem and protecting the company and the brand from imminent additional damage. While it’s easy to pick on United’s mistakes, it’s more instructive to have a positive case study from an industry peer so readily at hand for contrast.

Originally published at my LinkedIn page.