Google is undergoing some legal gymnastics as it tries to comply with a European Union order to allow people who don’t like what shows up in their search results to have them permanently deleted. Think of it as a statute of limitations for boorish behavior.
It is also very dangerous.
We are who we are, and it is a sad commentary on society and on business that we just can’t accept that people are human and they will always screw up.
People say bad things. They have biases. They stereotype. They treat others badly. In some cases, even perfectly normal (and charming) people lose their jobs over something they do or say, even if they are never quite sure what it was they did.
But that is something to be owned, not orphaned. There is a tendency in this world to define people by their flaws. There is an endless supply of pitchforks and torches to be assembled for a lynching, even though everyone knows that there is no one without sin, eligible to cast that first stone.
Owning who we are is an important trait in leadership. In the first interview he gave after his elevation to the pontificate, Pope Francis was asked who he was. His reply was profound: “I am a sinner…I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
There are two parts to that statement. The first is obvious. “I am a sinner.” We all do bad things. We cheat on spouses. We drink too much at business events. We eat Klondike bars when we are supposed to be dieting. We skip pilates. Almost always, our personal failures lead to business missteps. We act out of anger and make decisions that go contrary to the desires of our stakeholders. We let greed get in the way of what’s best for our employees. We call out sick when we just don’t want to face what’s in our inbox.
But those are personal, not professional failures. They are the product of our habits, our traits and our whims. They will always get us in trouble, unless we are honest that they are a part of our life, something to to be watched out of the corner of our eye, as if we are a gazelle in a field of lions on the Discovery Channel.
The second part of Francis’s statement, though, is often overlooked. He is not just a sinner, as we all are, but he is a sinner “whom the Lord has looked upon.” You don’t have to be Catholic, or even religious for that matter, to see he is talking about redemption. Just because we muck up something doesn’t mean we are necessarily beyond the reach of redemption, personal or professional.
The best example is Michael Milken. He popularized the junk bond when he was at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s. They were such a great product that savings-and-loan institutions bought them in droves. When the junk-bond market collapsed, so did the S&Ls. They went after Milken’s scalp, and he went to jail after facing charges of insider trading and securities fraud.
Since then, though, no one has been a bigger champion of medical research than Milken. He has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research. He is the ultimate philanthropist, is well-respected in almost every circle and is a brilliant and innovative thinker. What’s more, he doesn’t care if you Google him and find out that Rudy Giuliani put him in prison for almost two years. After all, Giuliani nowadays thinks Milken should be pardoned.
This is a country of second chances. The first boats of Europeans who settled here and established this nation were filled with criminals, ne’er-do-well’s, spendthrifts and rakes. Our Founding Fathers tried and failed more than they succeeded. Washington himself would always be a colonel with a spotty military record in the eyes of the British army. To the colonists, he was our savior, even though he lost more battles than he won.
So redemption is part of our experience, but it cannot come by closing our eyes and ignoring the mistakes of our past. Those desperate to have Google erase the most embarrassing parts of their lives would do better to Google themselves each day and remember who they are. I do. It is a reminder that we are mortal, and are human.
And we should be proud we succeed in spite of that.