Monthly Archives: August 2011

What Diana Nyad and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Teach Us About the Ethics of Heroism

Heroes inspire.

Maybe that is why we keep looking for them in all the wrong places. A recent Newsweek column, “The League of Fallen Idols,” references Roger Clemens’s perjury mistrial. We celebrate superhuman performance on the playing field, the mountains of the Tour de France, the court, and on the green. And the reality is that superhuman performance around winning often has been an illusion.

Recently, I’ve been struck by two examples of a heroism that does inspire. Long distance swimmer Diana Nyad and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. have both come up short this month in the prize department, but offer examples of how to persevere through disappointment, undiminished in search of a goal.

Earlier this month Nyad failed to achieve a dream she’s held onto for more than 30 years; she’d focused her training around it for the last two years.  Her Cuba to Key West swim had to be aborted midway because of a severe asthma attack lasting nearly 12 hours and wracking pain in her shoulder.

She said after being pulled from the water: “I wasn’t the best swimmer I could be — the asthma and the shoulder made sure of that.”  She continued: “I was my most courageous self.”

Nyad said she believed the sea and weather conditions were favorable to her swim, and that she had trained and strengthened her body to peak shape, celebrating what she had achieved at almost 62 years of age. “I thought this was my time.”

She said of her experience: “I was the best person I could be … that’s the message. I dug down, I dug deep … Whatever you’re doing, do your job well.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he doesn’t dwell on his losing streak. The son of NASCAR icon Dale  Earnhardt, killed in a race 10 years ago, Earnhardt approaches his racing with respect for his dad’s legacy and an ethic of wanting to be known as someone who acted right, who was honest, and ran his car well.

It has been more than three years since NASCAR’s most popular driver has won a race. Earnhardt has run out of fuel in the last lap, had a wheel come off, overheated engines, crew mistakes, bad tires, flawed pit strategy, driver error and been caught in others’ accidents. Through it all he has kept an upbeat attitude and a commitment to do his best to win. But his sense of winning isn’t just about him: he’s also given up a chance for first place in order to draft a teammate in a better position to come in first.

In the inevitable interviews after a near or far miss, Earnhardt doesn’t do PR spin. He calls it as he sees it, seeing himself a part of a larger whole – no entitlement, no excuses. And on to the next race, practicing harder, figuring out what he has to do to improve. For him, each race is a new chance.

And for Nyad, part of the purpose of her swim was to invite the world to re-think age, reconsider what it means to be 62. She did that. Her reaction three weeks after abandoning her swim was pride in her effort, but given the two years of training, she admits to feeling cheated as an athlete and isn’t sure what she’ll do with that.

No story book endings because the ending is always being written as long as the human spirit propels itself through the disappointment, an inevitable part of reality, to the next thing.

That’s a definition of heroism that has enduring inspiration.

Gael O’Brien      August 30, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; in a recent column she writes about Ohio State University’s handling of a football scandal


The Week in Ethics: What The Economist Got Wrong About Promoting Women

The wrong way to promote women,” in a recent issue of The Economist, dismisses the serious inequity of  women holding 1 out of 10 corporate board seats in Europe, and 1.5 out of 10 in U.S. companies by saying nurture, not a glass ceiling, holds women back.

Therefore, quotas — action many governments in Europe have taken in order to increase the representation of women on boards — are unnecessary and “do more harm than good,” according to the article.

In pushing its nurture thesis, the article creates a straw man: the real obstacles in a woman’s career are children, aging parents, and companies that aren’t sufficiently family friendly.

So what if you don’t have children and ignore aging relatives? What if you don’t make the mistakes done apparently by the caregiver stereotypes cited — disrupt your career by switching to part-time at some point, decline opportunities at night to network, or turn down assignments overseas to build experience — is advancement to senior management and subsequent consideration for board positions yours?

Well yes. No. Maybe? Once you overcome the pesky problem acknowledged that companies often want people who’ve had financial or operational experience for top positions and “these fields are still male-dominated.”

Prejudices, the article admits, “about women and work have deep roots,” but the author encourages companies to find ways to  overcome all that. Being more family friendly to attract female talent is one way suggested. Telecommuting is offered as an example of the flexible thinking required. Who would have thought  that was an express train to the boardroom?

The irony is that in trying to show what the alternatives are to governments imposing quotas to increase the representation of women on boards, the article offers no alternative except to admonish companies to figure out how to overcome the prejudice question “to win the talent war, and reap the rewards.” And that takes us back to square one.

Some companies have done a terrific job advancing gender diversity, and according to studies by Catalyst and others, experiencing financial rewards as well.  But given that only 28 women are CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies and women hold only 15.7 percent of seats on corporate boards, we have an urgent problem that is shared by every other country.

Are quotas the answer?

It would be a heated but relevant debate. Out of which we are likely to get better public policy, and answers that go considerably beyond telecommuting.

Gael O’Brien        August 3, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien also writes for Business Ethics Magazine. This column is a companion piece to “Women in the Boardroom: Should the U.S. Have Quotas?” in Business Ethics Magazine.