Brian Williams and the ticking clock

12th February 2015

Brian Williams has experienced a biblical fall-from-grace for telling self-glamorising tall tales while covering the Iraq war for NBC. Holed up in his Connecticut home, with the media feasting on the carcass of his career, he may draw cold comfort from the knowledge that he indeed now fully grasps what it is, to be in a war.

There is something universal in this story of a famous news anchor, at the height of his powers, suddenly imploding. This is a story with a long fuse – replete with poor decisions, an inflated sense of worth and an uncontrolled ambition for growth.

It has emerged that many knew that Williams was heading for the fall, but it appears they were uninterested in letting him know (let’s call this schadenfreude-in-waiting), or Williams himself was unwilling to listen. Each has implications for how we choose to run a business, as well as how we might elect to live our lives.

One of my favourite moments in Jerry Springer – the opera is the entry of God on-stage, who sings a memorable opening line: ‘It ain’t easy being me’. These words are a fundamental truth – it is indeed rather difficult to be king of the pile. When one is large and powerful, people tend to defer; to agree; to reinforce one’s high opinion of oneself.

If talent brings us to the top, a conspiracy of vanity often topples us.

Coca Cola’s launch of Desani, a massive water brand in the USA, failed utterly in the UK. This perfectly good water broke a cultural rule in UK water market – that source defines quality. Desani, to the glee of the British media, had its origins in the corporation water of a London suburb. Hillary Clinton discovered the dangers of acting like, and being seen as, the inevitable candidate in the 2008 Democratic nominations. A coterie of Irish banks acted as though they were grandly indestructible in the early 2000s, only to rapidly discover otherwise – and wreck many lives in the process.

In the case of Brian Williams, the ticking bomb tocked for almost 12 years. Some months ago, I listened to an interview between Williams and Alec Baldwin on the latter’s podcast. An on-going theme of their meandering conversation was selflessness; the importance of putting country first, of being humble. Despite the theme, however, I was struck by how the whole programme revolved around Brian Williams rejoicing in how wonderful it was to be Brian Williams.

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

It is shocking, the delight with which a fall from grace is greeted. If you are powerful and believe you have a crew of loyal supporters about you, you may wish to think again.

Being big news engenders sycophancy – and this is hardly the breeding ground of fidelity. Williams, a man feted across Manhattan, is now globally pilloried. And why? Well, frankly, because he is human, and succumbed to that most human of weaknesses – wishing to be loved even more by those who love him already.

The headlines speak to the acid tone with which his media colleagues have recounted the story.

‘The Fabulist’    ‘Stolen Valour’   ‘Mercilessly Mocked’

I am not impressed. There but for the grace of God go many of us, me included.

But I am aware of a lesson which emerges, and it applies to business and brands, as much as to individuals.

When you are big and successful and powerful, hold dear those who would criticise you harshly, though fairly. For they are the ones who detect the burning of the fuse, and the ticking of the clock.

© 2015 Brian McIntyre.


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