President Trump has done a number of controversial things over the last few weeks, most notably fomenting a violent mob to attack the U.S. Capitol while Congress was counting the votes from the Electoral College. As a result, it would be easy to overlook some of the more mundane, yet head-scratching events he's also been a part of.
For example, he decided to hand out the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a peculiar group that includes a trio of golfers. It also includes a pair of congressmen who have been vocal in their support of the president, especially during the special counsel's investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award in this country, and the recipients are usually people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
Also on the list of people expected to receive the award was Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, who has been friends with the president for years. Belichick, however, announced on Monday evening that he is declining the award. In a statement he said:
The tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award. Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation's values, freedom and democracy. I know I also represent my family and the New England Patriots team.
The first two sentences sound like the sort of ordinary PR speak you'd hear from anyone. The third, however, is a remarkable lesson for every leader and a powerful example of emotional intelligence.
"I know I also represent my family and the New England Patriots team."
Belichick's reputation is pretty secure, at least when it comes to football. In fact, he's someone who many would consider the most successful professional football coach in the history of the NFL.
He's won eight Super Bowl championships--six as the head coach of the Patriots. He is the longest-serving active head coach and holds a record for playoff wins. I suspect that he generally feels good about his place in football history. Even if you're not a fan, which plenty of people aren't, it would be hard to argue that he doesn't have a reputation as an NFL great.
Belichick, however, recognizes that his reputation isn't just about himself. He has enough self-awareness to see that his reputation reflects on those around him, like his family and the team he coaches. Every time he associates himself with a person or a brand or a cause, it reflects not only on him, but also on the people and organization around him.
To be fair, Belichick had previously agreed to receive the award when the president offered it over a week ago. Neither has been shy about their friendship. As the Wall Street Journal points out, in 2016 Belichick publicly said he had a "friendship and a loyalty to Donald."
Of course, a few things have changed since then. Belichick knows that. He knows that being associated with the president right now is toxic, and whether he feels a personal sense of loyalty or not, it isn't just about him.
You can criticize whether or not it's sincere or too late, but it's actually an important lesson for every leader. Your reputation isn't just yours. You don't represent only yourself every time you stand up and speak, or take action.
There is no shortage of people who are perfectly willing to torch their reputation in pursuit of some short-term gain. If it were only theirs to sacrifice, it would be fine. If you're willing to give up your own integrity, that's your choice. The problem is, it's almost never yours alone.
If you're a leader, or a CEO, or a parent, or a spouse, the people you represent are counting on you to treat it with care. That doesn't seem like too much to ask.