During my senior year of college, a friend got sucker punched and knocked out cold coming out of a bar. It was a drunken feud that escalated. Nothing more, nothing less. Next thing we knew, a crew of us were at the ER, and a 3-month-long-ordeal would impact how we viewed leadership, parenting, and institutions forever.
“You’ll never succeed in the business world if you can’t read a room.”
These words echo in my brain to this day, uttered by a senior ranking university official annoyed at a few 21-year-olds for not admitting silly guilt, not laying down and staying true to our principles.
Imagine that, something like $50K/year for this education and some of its highest-paid educators stating such a proclamation. My parents were pissed. They had our backs from day one because our conviction and attitude came from them and our unique upbringings. This was a business school after all, and our view was that you only succeed in life and business by standing for something, being steadfast in beliefs and not compromising when it comes to personal integrity.
We did read the room and acted the way we did because of it. Friendship, loyalty, teammates and truth win out over bureaucracy, gutless politics and falsified image. We were told that they had “gotten people off for way worse.” We responded with, “If you can wake up each morning and feel good about that, you’re very different than us.” It was a classless episode, but the now retired head football coach backed us up from the word go. He was the only one who collected a college paycheck who did so.
You see, the situation was a joke then and it is more so now as I look back. The kid who threw the punch had a father who was a judge in a New England state. Our parents just weren’t that connected or powerful in the school’s eyes. The controversy was over words that we spoke late that night in response to the punch. The whole issue got spun around because we (myself plus one other friend) threatened to kick the puncher’s ass. (Not a hand was laid — mostly because we couldn’t find him — but I digress.) To minimize his own punishment, the sucker puncher and his lawyer dad came at us for “assault.” Yup, seriously, for telling him we’d kick his ass. Actually, that’s pretty poor parenting too right there, a stark contrast to our “work for what you get” foundations.
So, we got pulled into judicial hearings, and the judicial board, as well as the athletic department (we were all varsity football players, during an undefeated season) wanted us to admit fault, do community service and put it behind us. But, we didn’t feel we did anything wrong and couldn’t back down. This had literally no basis and was a kangaroo court.
When the oldest female member of the judicial board threw her pencil after my self-represented defense (I crushed it!), my friend backed me up when asked, “Do you have anything to add to Kyle’s position?” “Yes, I agree with everything he said…if it happened again tonight I’d handle it the same way.” Actually, maybe this was when the pencil tosser made her move!
And with that, we couldn’t read a room. We wouldn’t have success in the business world. We were doomed and our marketing degrees would be a big waste.
We ended up having to write 20-page papers about what we learned, hung posters up on campus, and then we moved on. But did we? Here I am writing this story 16 years later. There was some punishment; the puncher got thrown off campus and had to live somewhere else. Worse yet, his reputation as a gutless Daddy’s boy remains.
*Sixteen years later this still stings, but it felt quite vindicating when the Dean arrived with a copy of the 20-pager assignment and signed me a copy. (picture caption)
So, how are we doing? All three of us are pretty damn successful in the business world — - the real victim of “assault” and his two friends who came to his defense. And we’re just getting started.
As I traveled to Waltham this week to meet with the new Athletic Director, board chair / interim President, dean of students, heads of advancement, new head football coach et al, I think back on this experience and am glad it happened. The school has evolved. I have evolved. The high road is the best road. With each room I now read, I look back to this whole ordeal with vengeance, motivation, pride and vindication. Never, ever back down when “the man” tries to hold you down. You’ll be far more successful for it. In the end, this is what I’ve learned from my upbringing, my parents, my education and my career. Go Falcons!
*Repost from an older version on Medium from July 2016. It’s a personal growth story from 2004.