Last week I got a call from a young man named Jeff. I’ve known and mentored him for many years as he rose the ranks to become second in command of a major tech company on the West Coast. But when I picked up the phone, I could tell that Jeff was in distress.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Jeff explained that he was on the verge of quitting his job. For years he had been promised that if he put in his dues, kept his head down, and worked hard, he’d have a fast track to the top. After a string of supportive bosses who encouraged his ascent, he was now working directly for the CEO.
“He’s a total narcissist,” Jeff explained. “He’s a bully. He’s doing everything he can to keep me in my place. I’m supposed to be involved in the board meetings, and he refuses to invite me. It’s become a completely hostile work environment.”
Finally, Jeff said: “Tommy, I even called a lawyer. I’m thinking about suing the company. It’s gotten that bad. What do you think I should do?”
Truth was, I understood completely where Jeff was coming from. He is one of the most authentic heart-led leaders I know. Any organization would be lucky to have him, and his boss was probably just as bad as he claimed. If Jeff did take legal action, he might even have a good case. Except, this is what I told him:
“Jeff, I’m going to tell you a story I’ve never told anyone.”
I shared with him that during my freshman year of college at East Carolina University, I pledged the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. It was a big deal for me; SigEp was one of the largest frats in the nation, and its members have gone on to become politicians, bestselling authors, titans of industry, and Nobel laureates. SigEp was one of the first fraternities to emphasize community service, and I was looking forward to joining their ranks and becoming a campus leader. But as well-intentioned as SigEp was, this was still the late 1980s, and hazing was rampant. As pledges, we were ordered to kidnap the nastiest, meanest SigEp brother, drive him across state lines, and leave him to hitchhike home.
The only problem was the guy we picked, Zack, wasn’t too keen to go along with the plan. Zack was all of five-foot-five, but he was pure muscle and meanness. When we broke into his room and started duct-taping his legs, he thrashed and swung his powerful arms. Suddenly, as I was grabbing his wrists, Zack jerked up and headbutted me. My nose exploded with pain. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched in horror as blood poured down my face. The hazing was an epic failure, and I ended up being rushed to the hospital.
The next morning, I woke up with massive raccoon eyes and a call from the SigEp fraternity council. They wanted to meet with me. Later that day, I walked into the fraternity house and sat at a table along with SigEp’s East Carolina chapter president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary.
“Tommy,” the president said solemnly, “you are holding the future of our fraternity in your hands. The university can shut us down because you broke your nose during a fraternity pledge activity. If that gets out, all the hard work, all the community service, all the wonderful things Sigma Phi Epsilon has done will be for nothing.”
At first, I couldn’t believe my ears. The counsel wasn’t blaming me for what happened, but they were making it clear what they wanted me to do: lie. In the end, I told the school (and everyone else for the last thirty-three years) that I broke my nose playing rugby. I felt awful for weeks after that, but then a beautiful thing happened: I went on to become president of SigEp at East Carolina University. I became a campus leader and a voice for change. My proudest achievement was helping to integrate the Greek organizations on campus, which, even in the early 1990s, were still shamefully segregated.
“I still don’t know if I made the right decision,” I explained to Jeff. “What the fraternity did was wrong—letting that kind of hazing culture go unchecked for years. But I’m not sure turning my brothers into the university would have made things better. I took the high road and took a punch in the face—literally—and did my best to make that organization a better place.
“You have a similar choice. You’ve been mistreated by your boss, and you have every right in the world to be angry. You might even have grounds to sue. I can’t say whether that is the right course of action. All I can tell you is that if you go through with it, that lawsuit is going to be your life for the next couple of years. It’ll take up all your time and a lot of your money. Maybe it’ll be worth it, but sometimes it’s best to take the high road, swallow your pride, and choose where your energy is best spent.”
Swallowing your pride and taking the high road is one of the hardest things in life to do. It’s also one of the bravest things to do. In fact, just a few days ago, my friend Rory showed me just how much strength it takes. He and his ex-wife, Robin, went through a bitter divorce a few years ago that left them sharing custody of their son, Jake. This year, the Global Youth Leadership Academy (GYLA) is going to Greece, and we were able to offer Jake a $4,000 scholarship to attend—it’s been a tough few years for him, and no one is more deserving. Rory asked his ex-wife if they could put aside their differences and split the remaining $4,000 so Jake could attend. She refused. So, Rory stretched his budget and came up with the money himself.
One of our GYLA traditions is to surprise the students midway through the program with love letters from their parents. It turns out Robin wrote a letter to Jake explaining how proud she was of him.
“She didn’t contribute a single penny,” Rory vented to me the other day. “And now our son is going to think she is responsible for this lifechanging experience.” Then Rory took a deep breath. “But I’m not going to say anything. This isn’t about me or Robin. It’s about Jake having a lifechanging experience. I would never take that away from him. I still feel like a chump, though.”
“Rory,” I replied, “that’s one of the strongest things I’ve ever seen a person do. You swallowed your pride and put your son first. You’re a man of integrity, and I’ve never been prouder of you.”
Sometimes life punches you in the face and you have to walk around with raccoon eyes. Sometimes your bosses and your ex’s screw you over. Sometimes you want to hire a team of lawyers and fight back with every fiber of your being. But the truth is, you should avoid getting bogged down on the low road. At the end of the day, there’s a lot less traffic on the high road!
*All names are changed to protect the innocent and the not-so-innocent.