Success Lessons from the Crowley — Gates Affair

Competence is one of the keys to personal and professional success that I discuss in several of my books: Straight Talk for Success, Your Success GPS and 42 Rules to Jumpstart Your Professional Success.  Competent, successful people do four things well.  1) They create positive personal impact.  2) They get things done – they perform.  3) They communicate well – in conversation, writing and presentations.  4) They build and maintain strong relationships with the people in their lives.

It takes interpersonal competence to build and maintain strong relationships.  Interpersonally competent people are able to resolve conflict without damage to their relationships.  The Crowley – Gates affair has received nation attention. Most people are taking sides.  Regardless of which side you’re on, you have to agree that both parties (Crowley and Gates) did not do a very good job of handling the conflict in which they found themselves.

Earlier this week, there was a piece in the Huffington Post about the incident that made a lot of sense to me.   In case you missed it, here is an excerpt…

…The hard truth is that Officer Crowley’s defense that he was just doing his job just doesn’t wash. Having verified the facts, he had every opportunity to apologize to Professor Gates for the misunderstanding and leave. The hard truth that America needs to hear is that incidents of racial profiling and unfair treatment by the police and judiciary are oppressive facts of life for African American men even today.

The hard truth that Professor Gates needs to hear is that he is the one who handed over his power to Officer Crowley. Letting his agitation get the better of him, Gates lost the ability to shape the outcome of the encounter and set up his own victimization…So what should Professor Gates have done instead? He should have invited Officer Crowley inside, sat him down and calmly explained to him, human to human, the personal outrage that he felt at being the target of racial profiling. Moreover, he should have credited Officer Crowley with the possibility that this was an innocent investigation without racial overtones, and that Officer Crowley was doing his job with good intentions. But by angrily demanding respect rather than quietly asserting confidence, Gates placed himself at the mercy of the policeman.

And there are more uncomfortable truths that go along with this story. One is that life isn’t fair – those who have clearly been wronged are often the ones who must rise above the situation and be a bigger, better person. Another unpleasant truth is that moments like this will lay bare your internal weaknesses. One cannot help but be struck by the fragility of these two egos, neither of them able to put a brake on the runaway train. So if you don’t want to cast yourself as a victim, you had better get strong internally.

And perhaps the final lesson is the hardest one for all of us. What each of these men brought to this doomed encounter was a deep grievance: grievance for being an acclaimed Harvard scholar yet disrespected as a black man; grievance for being disrespected as a police officer, verbally assaulted while serving the public good.

As long as we walk around with a sense of grievance – notice the word shares the same root as “grief” – we’re going to make ourselves the victims of ourselves because we are stuck in our own ignorance and pig-headedness. The difficult fact is that to let go of grievance requires us to become generous, even when we think we’re the wronged party. In each and every moment – and particularly in moments like these – we choose who we’re going to be.

Common sense?  Yes – to me at least.  Easy to say, and difficult to do?  Yes again.

I had a personal experience that demonstrates this point very well.  I was having a conversation with my father about the situation, and President Obama’s comments on it last Friday.  We happened to have differing opinions on the matter.  What started out in conversational tones, soon degenerated into an argument with raised voices and real anger on the part of both of us.  I finally said that I was too angry to continue the conversation.  We both agreed this was best – at least I didn’t just hang up.

The rest of that day, I felt a vague sense of discomfort.  I don’t like arguing with my dad.  I also felt that I let my emotions get the better of me — to my detriment and the detriment of our relationship.  For a few minutes there, my dad and I were as angry with one another as Crowley and Gates were with one another that day of the incident.  We were both being ignorant and pig headed, unwilling to even consider the other’s point of view.

This sense of unease stayed with me all day Saturday.  That evening, I realized that the only way I could make this sense of unease go away, and to undo some of the damage I did to my relationship with my dad was to apologize.  I called him on Sunday and did just that.  We went on to have very nice conversation about things other than the Crowley-Gates affair. 

We were able to get our relationship back on track with a simple apology because I have a large balance in my emotional bank account with my dad, as he does with me.  When you don’t have a large balance in your emotional bank account with someone it is much harder to recover from these type of situation.  Just look at Crowley and Gates.  They had no emotional bank account with one another – and you saw the result.

The common sense point here is clear.  Successful people are competent.  Interpersonal competence, the ability to build and maintain strong relationships with others is one of the most important competencies you need to succeed.  Interpersonally competent people handle conflict well.  They don’t let it escalate to dangerous proportions.  I find that an apology is the best way to recover from a conflict situation gone bad.  It does take two to tango.  If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure you’ll find that you played a part in making things worse.  Apologize for that and you’re on your way to rebuilding a relationship endangered by poor conflict management.

That’s my take on the Crowley-Gates affair and conflict management.  What’s yours?  Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts with us.  As always, thanks for reading.


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  1. Wendy Allan says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this commentary. It does take the bigger person to see the others point of view, especially when the person feels wronged.
    I have tried to make this behavior consistent in my interactions, but it is not easy. I have friends and family frequently advising me to put the person in their place, voice my anger, etc etc. I find it much more satisfying in a soulful way to “turn the other cheek” and try to see the others perspective. And yes, at times, I do lose it and the conflict escalates. I hate these times, because it disrupts my peace of mind.

    As for the cruel fact of racial profiling in America, it is sad that Crowley and Gates conflict was affected by this fact. I do think they both over reacted and the conflict could have been amicably resolved quickly if a sense of humor and a realization of the others perspective was practiced. Too bad educated and important representatives of “civil” society missed the mark on this one. And too bad the media over-exploited the story. It only adds fuel to the fire, in my opinion.

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