In 2007, the world looked on as yet another sports figure and role model, Marion Jones, admitted to having used a banned substance while competing. Following the news about Ms. Jones came the list of fifty professional athletes, many of them baseball players, who had also used banned substances in their respective sports. Despite the heavy coverage of these events in the media, including discussions of whether or how players should be penalized for these violations, and how these revelations will change professional sports, the public seems to have reacted with disappointment and perhaps sadness, but not with outrage or shock. Does this mean that news about players using banned substances is no longer news? Did the public suspect all along that performance-enhancing drugs were a big part of professional sports, given the many cases that have been made public over the last few years? In the future, will there be public approval of performance-enhancing drugs, such that the rules may change in the next few years? And how will future athletes be affected by the norms that are established today?
I have to say that I am one of those saddened, but not shocked by the news of Ms. Jones and others. She must be grieving some significant losses as she returns her Olympic medals and prepares to serve a jail term. And if she is grieving, I grieve with her. Publicly admitting her use of banned substances, and subsequently returning her medals, was the right decision, but humbling, if not humiliating, to carry out, to say nothing of the legal consequences that have followed. Everyone who makes a decision this painful needs support during the process.
With increasing multiculturalism, a globalizing economy, climate change, and scientific and technical advancement, people in all sorts of careers and fields of endeavor are faced with brand new and deeply troubling dilemmas to be resolved. Many of these new issues are not governed by pre-established laws, ethical standards, or precedents.. Further, there are usually clear winners and losers, blessed and disadvantaged, as a result of the momentous decisions being made today. These factors create a heavy weight of responsibility for those who make the decisions that will shape the 21st century. Social science of the 19th and 20th century theorized that independent decisionmakers who are faced with difficult dilemmas, will consider the rules governing their choices, and the probable outcomes of following or violating those rules, and then choose what they predict will lead to the best outcome for themselves and the people they care about. Altruism would have been considered an anomaly, a luxury reserved for those who feel they already have everything they need. There was no allowance in the social sciences of the last century for the possibility that some good decisions benefit everyone, and some bad decisions hurt everyone. But that is changing, and today’s decisionmakers could use some support, not towards making the same decisions that the last generation made, but in questioning past assumptions and looking for solutions that benefit everyone.
I hope Ms. Jones has had a supportive person coming alongside her in recent days, someone who could be called a trusted advisor. Trusted advisors don’t simply tell someone what to do, or support the current rule structure, but help the other person to become a better decisionmaker, and to grow in wisdom, personal responsibility, and leadership ability. The world needs more people who can imagine that someone else’s problem or dilemma isn’t their own, to be resolved in isolation. The burden can be shared, and creative solutions can be generated. The next generation deserves to be supported and taught this principle, at home, at universities, and in their workplaces. A trusted advisor could be a therapist, parent, school teacher, grandparent, clergy member, older sibling, colleague or peer.
A trusted advisor completes several specific tasks, which include the following:
- Earning trust. Simply holding a leadership position, such as teacher, does not make one a leader. Trusted advisors have displayed over time that they live consistently with their ideals, have solid reputations, and keep their promises. They may not have lived perfect exemplary lives, but they have learned from their mistakes. They don’t demand that others imitate them, but they have personal qualities that make them worthy of imitation. They have strong and long-lasting friendships with their peers. They don’t have an emotional need to be followed by admirers and served by minions.
- Listening well. Trusted advisors are not always those in front of a camera, speaking to an audience, or airing their views in the local newspaper’s editorials page. They are good at helping others to put their thoughts into coherent expression. They listen carefully, and ask prompting questions, helping others to describe their dilemma completely, including the pro’s and con’s, people affected, and possible outcomes.
- Supporting the person, not just the decision. An acquaintance of mine had a very dear piano teacher who was like a second father to her. When she faced the dilemma of whether to end her long and successful concert piano studies to move into another field of endeavor, the teacher and his wife made it clear that they supported this young woman, irrespective of whether she continued piano or moved on to a new field. Years later, she still talks about how much she appreciates that level of support from them, that they loved her as a person, not just as a pianist.
- Mastering the subject matter. Simply put, trusted advisors know their stuff. They have the proper training in the advisee’s area of interest, and they keep current, constantly honing their knowledge and skills. They need not resort to bragging, one-upping, and power plays to assert their superiority over others. Their knowledge is apparent by their words and conduct. Rather, they are willing to generously share their expertise, passing on a legacy to the less experienced.
In my therapy sessions with professional athletes, one common theme that I have encountered is that they are expected to be “coachable”; that is, to consistently follow the coach’s directives. A wise coach, in turn, keeps his or her directives simple, clear, and reasonable. This system will always have its merits, especially during competitions. But simple directives do not in themselves provide enough guidance for the more complex decisions that athletes face today, especially off the field. The “hear no evil, see no evil” ethic of athletes who do not fully question what substances are being administered by their trainers, is inadequate as well. The day is coming in the sports world and in society at large, when the most successful newcomers to any field are those who are not only coachable, but also choose to have trusted advisors, those effective leaders who don’t make their decisions for them, but empower them to create a better world. It took guts for Ms. Jones to admit her violations, rather than to hide in denial and hope that the allegations against her couldn’t be proven. After her sentencing, she advised young people not to make the same mistakes she had made. Perhaps her experiences today will help her to develop into the kind of role model tomorrow’s world so desperately needs.