By Scott Weighart, Director of Learning and Development

As you may have heard, a real tragedy happened in Boston in late March. Two firefighters died in the line of duty when a nine-alarm blaze ravaged a building in the Back Bay. Since it happened, there has been a good amount of media attention amidst finger pointing about who is to blame for the fire.

With that as the backdrop, I picked up the newspaper last week and was surprised to see that the parents of one of the fallen heroes, 33-year-old Michael Kennedy, had taken out a half-page advertisement.  What I read moved me to tears.

In the face of the worst news a parent could ever hear, they took out the ad because they wanted to thank dozens of groups and hundreds of individuals who had helped them through their darkest hours.  They raved about the public who lined the streets in thousands during the funeral procession.  They praised the schoolchildren who sang at the service.  They expressed their gratitude to any number of public officials, friends, family members, and leaders who stepped up and did something to honor their son or help them get through the toughest days in their lives.

What about who was to blame for the fire and this life cut short?  There was not a word about that.  Instead they closed their thoughts with a quote: “The firefighter performs one act of bravery in his career, and that’s when he takes the oath of office.  Everything else is in the line of duty.”

Wow.  I pushed the paper over to my wife, who read it and began crying within 15 seconds.

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This made me think of another recent event—watching California Chrome fall short in his bid to be the first Triple Crown winner in horse racing since 1978.  It had been a great story: the horse had been birthed by a mare bought at a rock-bottom price, and no one thought he would amount to much.  Co-owner Steve Coburn earned admiration when the horse won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.  He struck me as an unpretentious guy with a nice rags-to-riches story.  It was easy to root for him and his horse.

Well, the horse finished in a disappointing tie for fourth in the Belmont Stakes, and the Triple Crown was denied.  A reporter came over and commented on what an amazing run it had been for California Chrome—thoughtfully teeing Coburn up to respond graciously by congratulating the winner and reflecting on what a memorable ride it had been for him and his terrific team.

Instead—at the moment when he enjoyed more of a media spotlight than ever before in his life—he responded by ranting about the outcome.  He called out the other owners as “cowards” because several horses had not run in the previous two legs of the Triple Crown, meaning that they were fresh for this race.  Twice during the short interview, his wife tried to get him to shut up, but he wouldn’t.

Did he have a point?  Perhaps.  But he came across as a cranky sore loser, and the media was all over it for days until he apologized.

As a leader, you’re going to have address bad news, and sometimes it will happen very publicly.  There may be bad earnings reports, layoffs, security breaches, you name it.  Any leader can shine when there is good news to share, but most leaders’ legacies will be defined and remembered by how they communicate in the darkest hours.

When you have to talk about bad news, think about how the parents of Michael Kennedy handled the worst news imaginable.  If they can be gracious in the face of an incomprehensible level of grief, we all can be reminded that every lost race or minor injustice can be taken in stride—the same gracious stride of a thoroughbred. 

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