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How to Eat the Elephant in the Room

A Guy Walks into a Bar.

We were having a few beers at Speciation, laughing at the title of a particular college course, called Social Problems. I mentioned it sounds like a class run by a comedian, filled with Seinfeld witticisms, addressing tricky social dilemmas. For example, Professor Jerry might spark a debate by asking, “How long do you have to wait for a guy to come out of a coma before you ask his ex-girlfriend out?” Mr. Seinfeld might also share his observation on relationships, “Marriage is like a game of chess except the board is flowing water, the pieces are made of smoke, and no move you make will have any effect on the outcome.”

After exhausting the daftness of this idea, my buddy (a fellow professor) told us about someone attending a class on ethics, which led him to ask, “Who has the moxie to teach ethics?” (He worded it differently). He continued, “You’d have to feel pretty good about yourself to say, ‘Ethics? Yeah, I’ve got that covered. I can teach everyone about the highest moral levels of humanity.’” It was a clever observation, and we got a good laugh out of it, mostly because it holds some truth. If you teach a class on ethics, wouldn’t you have to be highly ethical yourself? Of course, this got me thinking (again)... Who am I to teach about reputation and being the conscience of the company?! Gulp.

Anyone Seen My Elephant?

The tricky wicket of teaching ethical behavior is something I’ve thought a lot about. Seriously, who am I to teach these subjects? Like ethics, reputation and conscience have an extra “sting” factor that my buddy was alluding to. This “prickly” dynamic is the elephant in the room; a big issue no one wants to address because it’s difficult and socially awkward. I’m not very good at ignoring large pachyderms, so let’s get out the scalpel and dissect this puppy! Er, I mean, elephant.

First, let me be clear. I’m placing the concepts of reputation and conscience within the realm of ethics and ethical behavior. Second, I’m addressing the notion that an instructor of ethics should exemplify the moral standards of one’s instruction. Third, the “elephant in the room” is a personal inquiry about my qualifications to teach subjects like reputation and being the conscience of the company. Let’s do this.

The Nature of the Matter.

The question of competence and credibility of a professor is legit and fair. Wouldn’t you want to know what makes your professor qualified to teach a particular subject? I do. It’s a good and right question. Clearly, instructors should be able to instruct. It’s a given. I’d argue that professors must be knowledgeable, experienced, current, engaged, and able to effectively relate material to students. These are core abilities of teaching and not unique to subjects of morality. Ah, but teaching principle-centered material is not just a question of competence. What differentiates ethical content is the nature of the subject matter because it includes traits of personal character like integrity, honesty, fairness, authenticity, right action, and similar high-minded principles. This is pretty heavy stuff. You can’t find concepts that are any more idealized. So, let’s bring it back to our discussion. Should ethics professors exemplify these standards? Well, yes, of course and… no way, not a chance.

As it turns out, ethical behavior is a dynamic matter of degree rather than an on-off switch of being. It’s something learned and developed over time, often through failure. People go through stages and becoming “better” is called wisdom. So, yes, ethics professors should aspire to live ethically. But they’re not alone. Ethical behavior is a responsibility for anyone in power, particularly those who know better. After all, living with integrity and character is what we call being a good and decent human. As far as being an exemplar, let’s be very careful in using labels like this. It tends to backfire in the realm of ethics and humanity.

Hope Floats, Disguised as Cynicism.

Using a word like exemplar to describe someone contains the very seeds of discontentment we want to renounce. Allow me to explain. The character traits of kindness, integrity, honesty, etc. are the highest aspirations of humanity. The content itself creates hope within the hearts of stakeholders (and we’re all stakeholders in ethical behavior). Hope is then ascribed to the instruction as anticipation, an expectation that the instructor not only has knowledge of ethical concepts, but a deep experiential understanding combined with an intent to live by guiding principles. This may or may not be true. Either way, we hope. We desperately want our leaders to exemplify the best of our humanity. It’s a deep calling of the heart space rooted in our desire to connect with Foundational Goodness.

Hope is a beautiful thing to be sure, but here’s the rub: to err is to be human (Alexander Pope). We fail. We screw up. Ethical goodness is a scale, and the bitter truth is, there are no exemplars of perfection in ethical behavior. Everyone misses the mark. Don’t believe me? Examine the lives of exemplars like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Thomas Merton. You’ll find, like all of us, they weren’t perfect (in fact, many “saints” had serious flaws).

So… yes, we can and should strive to live an ethical life. We can even reach high levels, but our human condition always falls short. The seeds of cynicism are planted in these aspirations and desires. We see the shortcomings in the world around us and it breaks our heart. Even Ted Lasso wrestles with the concept that, “It’s the hope that kills you.” Cynicism becomes a shriveling of the heart space. It’s a psychological, self-protective reaction meant to safeguard things we hold dear, like hope. We are cynical about things we care deeply about. We withdraw, pull back, and poke fun as a preemptive, protective strategy caused by what we know to be the fatal flaw of humanity: our inability to fully live up to our high-minded aspirations. Dang it.

Okay, I’ve established that anyone in power should strive to live ethically, but no one can truly be an exemplar. In fact, when we appoint people as exemplars, it cultivates seeds of cynicism. News flash! We’re not created to be ideal models of ethical behavior. We’re designed to be fully human, which always includes messing up. Our goal, therefore, isn’t to be perfect. We can’t be. Think about it. Perfection doesn’t exist, and according to social researcher Brené Brown, it’s a “self-destructive and addictive belief system.” When fully realized, this awareness is liberating. Don’t misunderstand, this doesn’t give us an excuse to live unethically. Quite the opposite. We’re called to live ethically, knowing we will fall short, which requires even greater qualities of character. It requires vulnerability, forgiveness, acceptance of our imperfections, and yet, to continue to live with kindness and compassion for ourselves and others. That’s the beautiful messiness of our humanity, and the best part is no one’s left out. This puts us all in the same game. We’re all in this together. Not a bad plan, eh?

We’re Gonna Eat Like Kings!

The final topic I’m addressing is my elephant in the room; the topic of my personal credibility in teaching reputation and being the conscience of the company. This one’s a toughie!

Do you remember how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. This is a pretty big elephant in the room, and it reminds me of an old Gary Larson cartoon with two spiders at a playground. They’ve built a large web covering the bottom of the slide and one spider says to the other, “If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings!” Like these optimistic spiders, I feel like I’ve caught a big one with this reflection and the fodder from this conceptual pachyderm is going to feed me for a long time.

At this point, it might be helpful to note that this topic is connected to a self-doubting concept called the imposter syndrome. This condition “refers to people, often women and high achievers, who doubt their accomplishments or fear being discovered as a fraud” (psycom). In other words, it becomes a self-critical question. Like many fears, the imposter syndrome is irrational, but this thought can still be a powerful influence on behavior. I’ll be honest, I totally wrestle with this condition, but obviously not enough to stop me from moving onward, most times.

Offering His Honor

Tackling the subject of one’s own credibility reminds me of the following wisecrack: a woman who needs to defend her honor probably doesn’t have any. So, let’s skip over some of this discussion on credibility and I’ll let my CV or LinkedIn speak for itself. What I really want to address is this: should my failures disqualify me from teaching subjects like reputation and conscience?

In pondering this, I found myself asking another question, “Who do I want to learn from? Someone who’s been through hell, or someone who preaches about heaven?” Well, first, let me say with head bowed and hand raised, “Mea culpa,” my friends. I’ve failed. Totally. Ugh. I’m not proud of it, but I also refuse to wallow in it. As a fellow traveler, I trust you understand. I’m human, I’m repentant, and my failures have broken me open. The good news is; my story doesn’t end there, and I think that’s part of the message. As Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going!” The only way out is through.

I’ve worked really hard coming to terms with my flaws, slowly realizing they don’t have the power to name who I am. In fact, I know for certain they’ve made me a better teacher and a better man. The “concepts” of reputation and conscience are no longer concepts for me. I still work on applying the lessons, and sometimes I fall short, but that’s the journey called life. So, the answer for me is obvious. I’d rather be taught by someone who’s lived through hell than someone who preaches about heaven. The first is authentic. The second is… well, bullshit.

Your Choice: Open or Closed?

Maybe, like me, you have faults and failings. They aren’t fun to admit to, but they have the power to break us open or close us off to the rest of the world. That’s the choice: open or closed. The world is filled with angry, closed-off people who don’t have much hope. “The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool,” says philosopher and poet, George Santayana. There’s no hope in the closed system. No love. Nothing new. These dynamic aspects of life can’t get in. There’s no space for them.

The difficult answer to personal growth comes in carrying the wound, and letting it teach you its lessons. We’re all going through something. We all fail, and we’ll continue to fail. It’s not a question of if, but when and what you’ll do with it. Yes, opening is hard. It takes intention, work, vulnerability, courage, and compassion, but an open system is the only choice that offers hope. It’s the only choice that embraces the messiness of love, the creativity of new ideas, and the spark of distinction that is you in this moment. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this, opening is life, closing off is death. Yes, you read that right. As it’s said in the Shawshank Redemption, it comes down to a simple question, either get busy living or get busy dying. What will you choose?

Questions or comments about this or any of my other work? Feel free to post a message or reach me at

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