HETRICK: Learning to lead with Sister Souljah moments

February 6, 2010

Several years ago, I attended a luncheon for professional communicators. The guest speaker was Col. Scott Minier, then head of public information for our local sheriff’s department.

At one point, Minier explained his unofficial rules of hierarchy and attire for handling good and bad news.

If there was good news to announce, he said, viewers would see his boss, the sheriff, on TV.

If there was bad news to announce, viewers would see Minier on TV.

As for wardrobe, if there was management-related news, viewers might see the sheriff in a business suit.

If there was bust-the-bad-guy news, viewers would see the sheriff in a brown uniform.

If there was bad crime news to report, Minier would don his brown uniform.

“And if there’s really bad news,” Minier joked, “you’ll see someone from IPD (the then-neighboring Indianapolis Police Department) in a blue uniform.”

Now that we have a combined police force in our community, the interdepartmental humor may not apply.

But Minier’s good news/bad news distinction holds true for many leaders in many organizations.

There’s an old saying that, “Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

Show me an organizational success and I’ll show you many a CEO ready and willing to take to the podium, announce the good news, thank all who contributed, and promise more of the same.

But show me a failure, challenge or threat, and I’ll show you many a leader quick to turn tail and hide behind staff members, consultants, spokespeople, attorneys, one-sided/one-way communication or no communication at all.

This fear of facing and fessing up shouldn’t surprise anyone. A few years ago, a business coach told me that only 20 percent of the population is comfortable with confrontation. The rest avoid and run from it.

Thus, we see political candidates carefully screening attendees at rallies and town-hall meetings—thereby maximizing their odds of receiving softball questions and rousing applause.

Thus, much of the ill-informed and often inaccurate outrage posted in response to online news and commentary is anonymous.

Thus, many executives and officeholders are delighted to preach to the choir on popular topics, while skirting opportunities to tackle opposing views in public forums.

Thus, candidates for office launch superficial, name-calling attacks against officeholders and policies while failing to tell the whole story, explain context or offer realistic alternatives.

Recently, for example, an Indiana candidate for Congress posted a Facebook message saying, “I was truly heartsick when I reviewed the president’s proposed budget today. We so much need grown-ups back in power.”

In a linked blog post, the candidate criticized long-established spending (and, presumably, long-scheduled increases) for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The candidate did not say what he’d cut, how he’d get that through Congress, or how he’d explain such cuts to the senior citizens and lower-income Americans (including his constituents) who’d be affected.

But, hey, who needs details? Just call names, à la elementary school, and leave us acutely aware of who’s being childish.

But every once in a while, someone in power shows some chutzpah and surprises us with a Sister Souljah moment.

If you don’t know the term, it dates back to the 1992 presidential campaign. Hip-hop artist and political activist Sister Souljah, who is black, had uttered some particularly racist comments about people who are white. Candidate Bill Clinton, speaking before a meeting of Jesse Jackson Sr.’s Rainbow Coalition, called her out on it.

In other words, he criticized the lion in the lion’s den.

Eight years later, candidate George W. Bush had his own Sister Souljah moment when he called out conservative Republicans for being inattentive on social issues at a meeting of the conservative Manhattan Institute.

In the last few days, President Obama has joined his predecessors with two Sister Souljah moments of his own.

First, he publicly rebuked the members of the Supreme Court, who were seated before him at a nationally televised State of the Union address, for their controversial split decision on campaign contributions by corporations.

A few days later, Obama walked into the lion’s den at a House of Representatives Republican retreat in Baltimore and, during an hour on national television, parried their positions on issues and countered their criticisms of his policies and his administration.

Some observers likened the exchange to a session of the British Parliament during which opposition members debate the prime minister.

Compared to childish name-calling by our local congressional candidate, I found it grown-up and gutsy on the part of the president and the House Republicans.

So how do you respond to challenge and confrontation? Do you duck, dodge and delegate? Or do you demand the dais and invite the debate?

Personally, the more Sister Souljah moments, the happier I’ll be.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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