Lance Armstrong & Manti Te’o: When We Let Image Hide the Facts

Sometimes we want to believe the story so much that the facts simply get in the way.

It’s easy with celebrities or athletes because they star in the fairy tales that we accept as truth. But, it can happen at work just as easily, because we want to believe the story there too.

Lance Armstrong did what all disgraced celebrities must do. He visited Oprah.

He admitted doping and apologized to Oprah as he tried to salvage an image and reputation that has fallen far and fast. In the first two minutes, he told her that he had used illegal substances to win every one of his seven Tour de France victories.

Evidently many, many people were part of an elaborate doping scheme that was the sports best kept “secret.” There were sponsors and media who knew it didn’t all add up.

Yet, Lance’s image was too valuable to be damaged and many benefited from his success. So, the story continued. And, he had his LIVESTRONG charity, which has done much great work, to protect too.

Manti Te’o:  the heartbreaking story that wasn’t

The same day Lance chose for his public confession, he had some competition. It was revealed that Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was a hoax and certainly not real.

This was a big story because Te’o, the star Notre Dame linebacker who came in second place for the Heisman Trophy, had much support and sympathy for losing his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day this fall. His courage and strength in face of these obstacles were featured in the sports media and were a fundamental part of his story as a Heisman contender.

Te’o said he was a victim of a cruel hoax and he had never met his girlfriend over a two year relationship. The facts are yet to be fully known as he faces the NFL draft. But, it is clear that the writers who interviewed Te’o never found or revealed that there was no obituary, funeral announcement or record of her attending Stanford even though the story was featured again and again.

Did it bolster his candidacy as a Heisman contender? We’ll never know, but it is clear that the story was too good to question or challenge – even when it didn’t all add up.

Can image cloud our judgment in business?

I don’t put Armstrong and Te’o in the same category in terms of impact, but there are common themes in our acceptance of the fairy tale. Surely this only happens in our celebrity worship culture, right? Well, even in business, reputation and image can become such a strong narrative that the facts are forgotten or ignored too.

Lance_Armstrong_Tour_de_FranceI recently spoke with an upset colleague because a critical hire wasn’t working out. The company had taken great care to find a well-regarded expert because the role was so important and they had gotten it wrong before. This candidate came with rave reviews and an impressive pedigree.

Yet, with huge disappointment and regret, she told me something along the lines of, “We thought we did everything right and felt lucky to hire him. Great thinker, but couldn’t deliver. We missed that he had never really run anything. And, we kept thinking it was us – that we were doing something wrong. Now, here we are a year later and in a terrible place. We should have realized it early on. It would have been so much easier.”

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This year of denial hurt their business and their credibility internally and externally, but they finally had to face that it wasn’t working and never would. He had the image and reputation – but he still wasn’t a fit for them in this role.

The cost of the image

Or, there is the superstar sales person with great numbers but leaves a wake in her path. Team members leave and client delivery issues surface, but everyone looks away because she is “our No. 1 sales guru – critical to the business.”

Is she? Or is her reputation for greatness (aka sales), hiding the real cost of the departing team members or the clients who leave after they realize reality doesn’t match the promises given during the sales process.

It can also work in reverse. I remember a very talented fast-tracked young female who was delivering on everything and more. She had it all, but she was younger and didn’t have the years of relationships with the top decision makers. Her reputation as a perpetual “up and comer” worked against her.

The senior leaders had her locked in as a female (which didn’t help her) junior top performer, but couldn’t move her beyond it. She was stuck and had to move to another company to hit reset and get the promotion she deserved and had earned. Her image and reputation – even though excellent – overtook the facts on her performance and potential. What a loss, as she took her incredible talent and bright future to a competitor.

Consider image, but remember the facts

There are many lessons from Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o. While their stories are separate and unique, it’s interesting what reputation and image with the great story does to us. Our emotions take over and the facts slip away.

As business people, we pride ourselves on facts and analysis. Armstrong and Te’o remind us that when the facts don’t seem to add up – they probably don’t. Reputation and image with a dose of hard, cold facts can lead us to the truth even when our heart thinks the facts are unnecessary.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consulting firm she founded in 2004. She is the author of newly released "Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life." Patti and her team advise clients such as PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, Frito-Lay and many others on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations. Previously a Senior Executive at Accenture. Patti is an instructor on change for SMU Executive Education and for the Bush Institute Women’s Initiative, as well as a keynote speaker on change and leadership.