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Brian Williams: Experience, Humility and Embellishment

This article was originally published in Duke Energy’s Leadership Development Network newsletter by Greg Efthimiou.

This article was written by Greg Efthimiou

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” So said Benjamin Franklin. Similar quotes are attributed to visionaries like Henry Ford and Warren Buffett. It’s a thought that’s likely occurring to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams with great regularity these days.

As you’ve probably heard, Williams’ storied reputation as a television journalist has been swiftly and mercilessly dismantled by his own media brethren in recent weeks. NBC News announced Williams’ unpaid six-month suspension on Feb. 10. Why? Because Williams either lied about or grievously misremembered being shot down in a Chinook helicopter in Iraq in 2003 while embedded with Army personnel. His reporting during other major news events is now being called into question.

The Brian Williams debacle offers some valuable lessons about leadership. First, there are just as many temptations to embellish your experiences once you reach the top of your field as when you are on your climb. Let your work speak for itself. Resist the urge to inflate achievements or sweep away missteps. Be humble about what you’ve accomplished and forthright about what you learned along the way. Few things are more attractive in the workplace than a leader who readily admits mistakes and explains what he or she learned from those mistakes.

Second, high character will win you fans and earn you defenders when the chips are down. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the Brian Williams scandal is that his detractors—some of them honorable service men and women—are coming out of the woodwork to question his character based on what they observed and how they were treated. Had he conducted himself better in some of these interactions, the story might be playing out in altogether different fashion.

Lastly, own your apologies. The only thing worse than failing to apologize when you’ve made an egregious error is to offer one that is half-hearted or evasive. “I’m very sorry you feel deceived” is a lot different than “I’m very sorry for deceiving you,” don’t you think?

Greg Efthimiou is Corporate Communications executive at Duke Energy overseeing the areas of Employee Communications, Engagement and Change Management.  Greg leads the creation of more than 250 articles, videos, blogs, and discussion forums each year, plus a series of programs to boost links between staff and managers.


Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review,,, and Fast Company.