The sad, sordid story of Bill Cosby continues this week as he returns to court in Philadelphia for retrial on three counts of aggravated indecent assault brought by women who say that Cosby sexually assaulted them at the height of his career.
It's hard to see much here that's good. At least 27 women allege that Cosby harassed, assaulted or raped them and that they either feared speaking up, or if they did, no one believed them. No verdict will take away that violation. And whatever you think of Cosby, he's an 80-year-old man losing everything at the end of his life, and that's a tragedy.
But leaders can actually learn something from this disillusioning mess: how to know the people you want on your team, in the trenches, and watching your back. And it's got nothing to do with their resume, interview, references or where they went to school.
Hop in my time machine and let's go back to the 1980s, when Cosby was at the height of his fame. The Cosby Show was the biggest thing on television, but what made Bill so iconic and beloved wasn't just that he was a funny comedian. It's that he was seen as wholesome, a good guy, a man of character--the funny uncle you wanted to have over to your house. He was "America's Dad"!
Turns out we didn't know Cosby at all. We knew the persona he wanted us to see. The women who worked with him over the years knew the truth. So did everyone who was supposed to protect those women but didn't. The cuddly uncle thing was all a big lie.
That's the lesson.
As a leader, your most important job is recruiting great people to join your team and help you build something incredible. Qualifications are important, sure, but you also need people of good character--honest, hard-working people you can trust. That's what we thought we had in Cosby, but we fooled ourselves by looking at his packaging--his interviews, ads and comedy shows.
Packaging isn't reality. Packaging won't tell you who someone really is. Resumés, references and all the rest won't tell you if you should hire someone or whether or not you want them at your side when the chips are down. Only one thing will:
How they treat other people.
To the public, Cosby was the smiling pudding pitchman, but people who worked with him describe a man who was power-hungry, sexist and mean. Lisa Bonet, who co-starred with him on The Cosby Show, said that Cosby was abusive and cruel to her, especially after she got pregnant during the show. Former director Debbie Allen also says that when co-star Phylicia Rashad also became pregnant, Cosby accused Rashad's husband of ruining the show.
How a person treats other people, especially from a position of authority, tells you more about their character than all the college degrees, testimonials and performance reviews ever will. Even if you really, really want to believe that someone is right for your company and for your team, watch how they deal with subordinates, peers, and even friends and family members.
Are they patient, even-handed, humble and honest? Or do they criticize, lose their cool, play humiliating mind games or flat-out lie? Pay close attention to what you see and what you hear. Confirm and corroborate potentially damning accounts, but don't ignore them. Even something that's hearsay becomes serious business when you hear it over and over again.
Character matters. Maybe more than anything. And it doesn't show up on somebody's LinkedIn profile.