Forgiveness as a Leadership Competency

On May 12, 2014, in Career Insight, Events, by Walker News

Dean Benjamin Ola. Akande
George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology
2014 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony – May 10, 2014

On Jan. 1, 1954, the Alabama Crimson Tide faced Rice University in the Cotton Bowl. Alabama led by three points in the final minutes of the second quarter. On fourth down, Alabama punted the ball. The punt returner for Rice, Dicky Maegle, the star running-back, caught the ball and headed down the sidelines. He broke through the Alabama defense and was on his way to a 95-yard touchdown as members of the Alabama bench stood on the sidelines and yelled for their teammates to stop Dicky.

Then the unexpected happened.

One of the Alabama players, Tommy Lewis, jumped off the sidelines, ran on the field without a helmet and tackled Dicky. Then he ran back to the bench and sat down as if nothing had happened.

The officials awarded a touchdown to Rice University, but that did not mollify the crowd. They wanted blood.  “Throw him out,” they screamed. Some rabid fans yelled things that were not nearly as nice. Tommy Lewis, the tackler, sat on the bench, his head bowed in shame as he contemplated the absurdity of his actions.

We’ve all done foolish, impulsive things. We knew better, but acted out of the impulse of the moment without thinking.  We thought we were doing the right thing and yet it was glaringly clear that it was not. Football is a game of emotion and it’s easy for people and players to get caught up in the frenzy of the moment.

So the young man sat there on the bench in shame, embarrassed, listening to the crowd as they hauled insults at him. It was a lonely moment of total humiliation.

Suddenly something happened that caused the whole stadium to hush. As the team left the field at halftime, Tommy Lewis ran up to Dicky and draped his arm around his shoulder. It was his way of apologizing. Dicky, in an interview many years later recalled, “At first I thought it was one of my teammates, but it was Tommy Lewis with tears streaming down his face. He apologized and said, “I don’t know what got in to me. I just hope they don’t string me up on those goal posts.’”

The two appeared on the Ed Sullivan show two days later.  Ed Sullivan asked Lewis why he tackled Dicky.  “Mr. Sullivan,” he replied, “I was just so full of Alabama.”

Graduates, as you re-enter the world armed with your degree and with a renewed vigor and excitement of possibilities, one thing is certain: you will face challenges that I am confident that you are prepared to overcome.

And I hope that you will take with you a willingness to forgive those who undermine you and underestimate you. I’m talking about those who kept you from getting things done, who refused to believe in you, and by doing so, made life difficult for you. Yet you succeeded despite some tough odds because of your perseverance. Remember that one of the greatest, unheralded marks of a leader is forgiveness. Embrace it; take it with you for the rest of your life.

By the way, Rice University won the football game. You see, the ultimate victory in life often comes from when it is least expected, but arrives when it is most needed.

Go forth and forgive.  Go forth and succeed.


God bless you.


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