Rule 8: Learn to Take a Punch

Rule 8: Learn to Take a Punch


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Have you ever been falsely accused of improper or unethical conduct?

Yes: 64 percent

No: 36 percent

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The French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte retreated twice for every time he advanced. He did not have to win all the time; he did not have to win most of the time; he had to win at the right time. Napoleon's greatest skill was knowing when not to fight and when to cut his losses. Let's discuss this issue in the modern corporate environment.

Earlier we discussed how invincible executives bounce back from career setbacks. In this section we will deal with a particular type of career problem that merits special attention: false or untrue publicity. Almost two-thirds of invincible executives have had to deal with untrue allegations about themselves or their companies, and the means by which they deal with this situation provide significant insight into the way they manage their careers.

False or untrue publicity can be something as big as a story about you in the National Enquirer or as small as a backstabbing coworker. But the rules for dealing with false publicity are pretty much the same any way it comes at you.

One-Fifth Are for Fighting

Only about one in five invincible executives adopts a take-no-prisoners approach to false or untrue publicity. Tom Cruise, it seems, will sue anyone who publishes (seriously) false information about him. Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt also believes that, if you are confronted by untrue publicity, "you cannot let it hang out there. You have to deal with it immediately because people don't know the facts and they are impressed with the facts that they are given. You have to go right at the people putting out the untrue publicity and clear it up right away." Former Senator Alan Simpson agrees: "An attack unanswered is an attack believed," he stated. In the corporate world, Pat Finneran of Boeing said virtually the same thing—noting that he had been successful taking "head-on" untrue publicity about his company. So there is no doubt that many top professionals—ranging from movie stars to politicians to corporate leaders—will not tolerate untrue publicity. Nevertheless, while this approach can be promising, satisfying, and successful, it is the exception, not the rule.

The reason why many decide not to take on untrue publicity is simple. Slanderers very often find a way to get in the last word. Remember that once someone has abandoned the truth, that person has no constraints on what he or she can and will say about you. In the case of a backstabbing coworker, "Even if you get the coworker fired," a software CEO once told me, "they will start some sort of e-mail campaign, or in the worst cases, file a whistle-blower lawsuit against you." Often suits for harassment or unethical conduct are really the last-ditch tactics of disgruntled coworkers who will do anything to win a personality conflict.

And if a member of the media is the slanderer, of course, he or she has total control over how your viewpoints are expressed, if that person chooses to print your views at all. "The press always has the last word. They'll put a correction in under weather reports from Singapore," notes Marriott executive vice president Joe Ryan. Or as banker-baseball team owner Drew Baur put it, "You don't get into a fight with somebody who has more ink than you do." Fighting back might feel good at first, but often it either does no good or simply results in more mudslinging. Everyone gets dirty, and you might even call more attention to the falsehood by responding.