My Advice to Ryan Lochte and Myself
As a communications strategist with experience in crisis communications, I'm used to getting unexpected calls from public figures who find themselves under harsh public scrutiny. Even so, I was a little surprised Thursday to receive a call from an unfamiliar Florida phone number.
It was a representative for Ryan Lochte, the American Olympic swimmer caught up in the midst of a crisis of his own making.
For those who've been living under a rock for the past week, Lochte and three of his fellow swimmers made waves when they reported having been robbed at gunpoint on the streets of Rio de Janeiro by men posing as Brazilian police officers.
The story quickly unraveled, with Rio police offering a different account — seemingly backed up by security-camera footage — that accused the Americans of trashing a gas-station bathroom and being confronted by an armed security guard when they tried to leave the scene.
With the story spiraling out of control, Lochte's rep asked a simple question: "How do we make this go away?"
My advice was equally simple, and the same kind of advice I'd give to any other person in similar circumstances. Get the truth — the whole truth — out immediately. Apologize and take responsibility instead of offering excuses. Then, change the subject.
(Lochte's team didn't take my advice, issuing an "apology" Friday morning that attempted to justify his lack of integrity rather than apologize for it. As I write, the story is once again churning as observers pick apart the language. That's the price for issuing an excuse instead of an apology.)
Even though they didn't take my advice, it's good that Lochte's people called me, because I'm exactly like him.
It's easy to criticize Lochte for making up a big, ridiculous lie in an attempt to cover up his own bad behavior. And it's fun to pile on because he got caught in a lie of such grand scope on such a global stage. But at most points in my life it wouldn't have been beyond me at all to craft a similarly outlandish story to get myself out of a bind.
The lies I told to make myself look better (or to prevent looking as bad as I deserved) are at their core no different than Lochte's big, ridiculous lie to get out of a fairly minor jam. The only real difference is that Lochte got caught, while I usually got away with it.
I hope what Lochte really got here is a catastrophic a-ha moment which requires a sober look inward. I got mine several years ago, when I almost died on a business trip to Egypt.
It's a cliché to have a near-death experience that makes you reevaluate your life, your priorities and your principles. But that's what happened for me.
The injury and the long months of recovery required me to realize that so much of my life was a big lie. My priority had been to do what it took to make sure people had a positive view of me, even if that meant stretching the truth to make a good impression. More significantly, the efforts and lies to cover up my sin which belied the image I coveted were damaging to me and my family. Worst of all, they caused the Lord to grieve.
Why did Lochte do what he did? Why did I do it for decades? Why it is still my daily struggle?
When your image is paramount, every decision, all your language, everything you do is passed through the filter of perception. It gets to the point where you don't even notice it. Worse, you lose sight of who you really are. All you know is who you project yourself to be.
Before we casually cast off Ryan Lochte for sport, perhaps each of us should search our own lives for the kind of systemic deceit that betrays who we are and who we were made to be. And more importantly, we should work to determine our true identity (and worth), which has nothing to do with status, wealth, power, appearance, or whatever your identity of choice may be. We aren't, in the end, Olympians. Nor are we business people. Nor stay-at-home moms. Fill in your own blank here ...
As believers we are, rather, sons and daughters of the one true God. We're the ransomed sinner, redeemed at the highest cost imaginable. We are joint heirs with Jesus Christ. We're forgiven, we're loved completely, we're worshipers. That's who we are.
Lochte's most recent statement alluded to "some valuable lessons" he's learned. I hope one is that lying to protect your image will, in the long run, have the opposite effect. It's not an easy lesson to learn. I still occasionally lie to make myself look good. I've done it today, in this very piece. Lochte's team never actually called me for advice.
I'm sorry for lying. I just wanted to make myself look good.