The Power of a Second Chance: What Michael Vick (and the Rest of Us) Can Learn from Ted Kennedy’s Life

Skilled leaders understand that if you are going to be on the line for decisions, you are going to make bad ones.  But what takes the measure of a leader’s character and resilience is what they do with hardship born of their own poor decisions.

Michael Vick has been through a lot.  His bad behavior will chase him all his life.  Only he knows if he learned anything from it.  And if so, what?  In addition to serving 18 months on dog fighting charges, Vick was in bankruptcy court last week.  Now, the sports world is watching to see if he still has his edge- something that was not in evidence last Thursday evening against Jacksonville.

  • Can a talented young man who is also full of swagger and arrogance learn from his mistakes?
  • Does his talent depend on his feelings of being proof against the rules that govern us all?”
  • What is required for someone who has behaved so badly to recover and make a life?

There are all kinds of ways to respond to a big mistake.  One is to let it just wash past you, return to exactly what you were doing and hope to not get caught again.  Or, as this fellow in Virginia did, you can go out and publicly humiliate yourself.

Or, you can follow the example of Ted Kennedy and use what you have to create a life of purpose.

If you read here you know that I am neither political commentator nor sports analyst.  But I have been rereading the reports concerning Ted Kennedy and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.  Like Vick, Kennedy as a young man had talent and a lot of promise.  His comportment after the incident was, at least in my reading, every bit as shameful as that of Michael Vick.  In Kennedy’s case, the money and power that may  have insulated him from prison would also have made it very possible for him to just disappear from public life.  He could have bought a life of privilege and privacy elsewhere.  Instead, whether from the same swagger that got him into the mess to begin with, or a sense of true desire to change, Ted Kennedy did not vanish from public life.  Today, even many who disagreed with his politics and point of view are honoring his 40 plus years of service in the senate.

His story- like many is not simple and in many ways different from that of Michael Vick.  We could look at the impact of the Kennedy family in making a new life possible (although Vick does have fans and fame on his side).  We could focus on the hubris and sense of entitlement that could supply the energy for each man to show up in public life after such appalling behavior.  Or we could harp on what we do not know about either Vick’s dog fighting ring or Chappaquiddick.  But the fact remains that Ted Kennedy who had lots of choices also had the courage and skill to re-enter public life and make something of the opportunities provided him.

It took Ted Kennedy a long time to normalize his relationship with America and the world.  But he continued showing up through tough political battles and regular reminders of his bad behavior.  And he managed to hold onto the talent needed to succeed, and perhaps even use the experience of Chappaquiddick to build on it. Ted Kennedy’s service and abilities are being honored by members of both parties (excepting those who trade on vitriol).

Michael Vick now has that same challenge in front of him.  There will be protesters at games and analysts who continue to question if he can play or should be allowed to do so.  And there will be scrutiny of his private life that allows little room to sway from the straight and narrow- at least for a while.   But in this time, when the memory of Vick’s cruelty and despicable behavior is new, lie the seeds of possibility.

Leadership and the Second Chance

Skilled leaders understand that power of a second chance, and what it says about a person in the way that chance is used.  Character, image, relationship, trust, respect can all be damaged in the course of human and business relationships.  But researchers tell us that what happens after a breach of trust has more impact on the future of the relationship than the actual breach.

When there is a breakdown, at some point, one party or the other will make an attempt to normalize the relationship.  Among baboons, when there has been a squabble, one baboon will, after a time, offer to groom the other.  It is an offer made tentatively which sociologists call a “repair offer”.  If the repair offer is rejected, then the damage to the relationship is significantly deeper than that created by the original fight.  Humans make repair offers in more abstract ways.  The morning after a heated argument, a chance meeting at the coffee pot might create an opportunity to engage.  “Did you see the game?” or “You take this, I will brew a new pot” may serve to normalize relationship.  A snub at that point can turn a single disagreement into an organizational feud.

When there is a breakdown of communications, trust, service level or even contract performance, there is also generally an opportunity to strengthen the bond between the parties.  Customer service executives have long known that a customer complaint, sorted quickly, fairly and well often creates a more loyal customer.   What happens when we translated that to issues of employee performance, executive decision making or departmental squabbles can be equally as powerful for an organization’s culture, resilience and performance.