President and CEO of Paul Werth Associates teaches lessons of poise through current events.


By Sandra Harbrecht

While most of us hope to be remembered for our best days, the spotlight tends to more likely find us on our worst day. Bitterness is a natural and forgivable reaction to defeat-but resentment never plays well in public.

Those who try to fake grace under pressure are seldom able to do so convincingly. But there are those rare individuals who find a way to meet adversity or embarrassment with authentic elegance.

A couple of examples of such poise have been on public display in recent months.

On Oct. 17, University of Michigan kicker Blake O'Neill became a household name in the state of Michigan and across the nation. With 10 seconds remaining in a game against in-state rival Michigan State, O'Neill only needed to punt the ball away to secure a two-point victory for his Wolverines. O'Neill had already won the hearts of fans with an 80-yard punt he launched earlier in the game.

But in a perfectly disastrous set of circumstances, he fumbled the snap and failed to get off the kick. A Michigan State player recovered the ball and scampered for a touchdown and a miraculous win as time expired.

O'Neill, who received death threats and suicide suggestions on social media after the game, suddenly was the most unpopular Michigan man on the planet. Then, three days later, he spoke to the media.

Crowded by reporters in the locker room, O'Neill was neither defeated nor defensive. He refrained from beating himself up or lashing out at his critics. He was calm and upbeat and appeared to be entirely at peace with himself.

"Like any other punt, you just go out there and try to execute it to the best of your ability. Obviously that didn't work," he said.

"That's life. That's football. You learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on. Put me back out there for the next one, and I'm sure I'll make the kick."

When the Detroit Free Press posted the video of the interview, the tone on social media reversed course as people saw his handling of one of the most painful moments in college football history.

The accountability, honesty and humility in the face of brutal adversity exercised by this college senior should be studied by all CEOs, elected officials and civic leaders who could someday find themselves in the line of fire. They would also do well to consider how the curator of an under-the-radar Ohio presidential library handled a rare moment in the spotlight this past summer.

In August, President Obama had just changed the name of Mount McKinley to Denali in recognition of Alaska's native people. Several members of Congress from Ohio cried foul, saying Obama had disrespected the 25th president and the entire Buckeye State.

But Kimberly Kenney, the curator of the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton, adopted a different tone.

Kenney didn't take a swipe at the president. She didn't invite sympathy or pity. She didn't offer a terse "no comment."

Instead, she put on a display of unexpected grace and civility.

"We're happy for the people of Alaska who have wanted to rename this mountain for nearly 40 years, but we are sad that our president will no longer be on the name of the mountain," Kenney told Talking Points Memo. "We're really excited that people are talking about McKinley on a national scale because that doesn't happen too often anymore. He's been gone over 100 years."

Neither O'Neill nor Kinney are public relations professionals. But they have much to teach those of us who are.

Their responses to difficult circumstances embody what most of us want to see from leaders: greater civility and honesty, more ownership and empathy.

The ability to thoughtfully and emotionally connect with people rises above the ability to recite even the most artfully crafted talking points. By embracing a willingness to just be real and engage in a respectful manner, personal and professional brands are destined to gain favor with audiences.

Like many, I was taken in by the controversy that surrounded both O'Neill's and Kinney's situations-but their responses were delightful and welcome surprises.

As a result, I find I have a rekindled interest in Ohio's McKinley legacy. And I even find myself rooting for a punter who plays for that school up north.

Sandra Harbrecht is president and CEO of Paul Werth Associates.