Russell Simmons is the latest prominent man to be called out for alleged sexual assault and, more pointedly, using his power to physically take advantage of other people. He stepped down from his multiple companies yesterday after the alleged victim published an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter. What's different about Simmons is that he has been a champion of young African-American ideas, being the co-founder of the seminal hip-hop music powerhouse Def Jam, and represents a level of iconic insight and mentorship that puts him in the same category as Richard Branson. It also ties into a complex history of we as African-American males being labeled dangerous or predatory - from the days of slavery to the most recent police shootings against unarmed, often adolescent boys.
As he steps down, there is the obvious shame and negativity with that, but the big question is, Where do we go from here? There are three concrete lessons that Simmons' downfall can give us insight into.
Always respect your relationships.
As a previous column addressed, you don't know the eventual dynamics of the people you interact with. In the '80s, Simmons was a self-proclaimed drug addict who was leading the newest (and highly profitable) element of mainstream youth culture. His focus on centeredness and enlightenment is likely not just a reflection of his growth, but also a response to more hedonistic times.
The challenge is that, when you are on top, it is easy to assume you can do what you want. You can't. Power dynamics can change as quickly as the wind. How you treat others not only reflects on your character, but also directly affects how you will be treated in the future.
Focus on your ethics, not the culture's.
One of the reasons many accusations is coming out now is because there is a strong trust in accusations, particularly from women, that wasn't happening in the 1980s. A majority of these accusations were occurring decades ago. Another icon, Bill Cosby, has accusations going back several decades. Why is it coming out now? It is the same reason mainstream America is more comfortable discussing gay marriage, stay-at-home dads and transgender rights: Our world has evolved. It will continue to evolve. In an interview just earlier this month, Simmons himself said the rise in sexual assault discussions reflects a past-due "awakening in women's voices."
Whatever you do, make it based on the ethics that are personal to you, not based on the world. If you do have a high standard of ethics, regardless of what other people are doing, then you'll be fine. At the time, it might have seemed more socially acceptable for Simmons and other men to treat people like this because frankly victims - the people at the receiving end of their abuse of power - were not believed. Now, with the #metoo campaign, the different social strata and so on, it's just a different world. People are being judged based on the world now, not on the world they were in, which is why you should absolutely follow your own ethics rather than getting away with whatever unscrupulous behavior is deemed acceptable at the time.
Even icons are flawed.
It's key to understand that every hero has certain issues and challenges. From a societal standpoint, some of these bad judgments or calls will be more egregious than others. The key is to assume that everyone has their issues. For Simmons, the disappointment is obviously the sexual assault accusation. The disappointment is magnified because of our lionization of Simmons. We're at a period of time when many flaws are becoming clear, particularly when it comes to abuse of power.
As you conduct your life, focus on doing things based on what works within your ethics. Focus on doing things based on every relationship being long term. Finally, understand that even the most idolized entrepreneur is dealing with his or her demons - including yourself.