Equating Greatness With Goodness

“So maybe we shouldn’t be so shocked. But we are. Because we don’t want to look at the complexity or costs of achievement. We want to paint our heroes pure, so we can indulge in our happy-fantasy hero-worship without having to feel queasy about it.” – “The Hard Lessons of Oscar Pistorius”, The Atlantic

A former coworker during my first year of graduate school was a tremendous fan of Tiger Woods. We happened to be working together during that fateful period that was Tiger’s downfall. From the car crash through to the multiple confessions, it was clear that Sam was having a hard time coming to terms with the disintegration of this icon’s public image. I remember him coming into the office one day, saying “I can’t watch the news anymore. It just keeps…getting…worse.” The only good that came from that scandal was the Nike ad parody that featured The Lion King (because we needed something to help us smile through all of this):

But seriously, folks.

I wrote a few weeks back about the leadership lessons that could come from the similar downfall that Lance Armstrong is still feeling the backlash from. Such a public figure falling from grace in that manner, is hard to take. But I will admit that the level of detachment I had from Lance Armstrong and even Tiger Woods made it less difficult to digest than it was for those who followed him more closely.

Oscar Pistorius, giving his statement after last week’s murder allegation.

And then I woke up on the morning of Valentine’s Day to the news that Oscar Pistorius had been charged with the murder of his girlfriend. In that moment, I got what Sam had been feeling. That sudden blow to the heart and perception of someone you felt as though you knew. I was confused, concerned, and felt far more distraught than I probably had a right to. I’ve been following Pistorius since his unsuccessful bid to the Beijing Olympics, and was so inspired by his story and supreme athleticism. And just as with Woods and Armstrong before him, he is now experiencing serious backlash from a publicly displayed misstep.

There are a lot of questions remaining as Pistorius’ case moves forward. But the one in my head is: why is greatness, in the heads of so many, synonymous with goodness? Why is it so easy to assume that those who have ascended to greatness in their chosen profession, are also good (or even infallible) people? We know that this is not always the case. A wonderful example is Kanye West. So many have erupted in outrage over any of his many controversial outbursts, saying they’ll never buy his music again. But does a lack of approval of a public figure’s actions mean we should be any less entertained or fulfilled by the work that they do when that work is good? I enjoy Kanye West’s music, but would not want to hang out at his house. Does my disapproval of his conduct mean I also shouldn’t listen to his albums? Should it mean that?

As you can probably tell, I don’t have an answer to the question I’ve posed here. But the closest to a resolution I can come to right now came from a wonderful Atlantic article on this story and the issues I’ve talked about here:

I recognize that there are far too many forces at play for that scenario to come about anytime soon, if ever. But imagine how the world might change if balance ever became as valued as singular achievement. Now, there’s a fantasy I could get excited about.

And maybe that’s the most realistic resolution we can hope for. We shouldn’t hope for only morally upstanding people to ascend to greatness, nor should we wish badly on those who have (allegedly) done wrong. Maybe we should simply understand that the superstars we place on pedestals, actually walk on the same ground as we do.

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