I spotted a huge "teaching moment" while listening to Lance Armstrong's controversial confessions to Oprah the other night. The moment didn't come from Lance, I'm sorry to say. With a neurosurgeon's precision, he talked about his doping experiences, and gave us details on when, where, how. It was all about Lance. Yes, he owed "apologies" to a list of people, and it turned out to be a fairly small number of people in his own circle. At that point, it became clear to me that he was missing his moment, because he was missing the much larger significance of what he's done.
His moment was off stage, jumping up and down, waving its hands, trying to catch Lance's eye. No such luck. In a staccato, edgy monotone, Armstrong went on talking about himself, and his own experience, when he could have seen the enormous impact his behavior has had on millions of other people. Oprah tried to spend time on the others, on all the people who believed in his achievement and then after years of deceit, were finally disillusioned by his admissions about cheating. The impression he gave was that his story was simply about him, and not about the wider consequences of what he's done.
Decisions always have consequences, both intended and unintended. What Armstrong doesn't seem to realize is that his life has proven that, from the start, before you make any choice, you need to follow the outcome of the choice far into the future, as a chess player would. In this case, Lance Armstrong needed, most of all, to look at the moral results, not simply the practical ones. Big choices, small choices, they all add up to impact on oneself, but morally considered, the most significant impact is always on other people. Those other people, the millions of them around the world, are exactly who Lance refused to acknowledge.
It's clear he doesn't understand that his greatest failing was in his bond with these other people, the ones who believed in him and stood by him through all of his previous denials. They'll get over it, certainly, but the effect is to erode yet another source of hope and courage for the people who saw him as not simply an idol, but a hero. To take responsibility not simply for intent, but also for consequences, means to recognize what it means to make moral choices. It's the meaning of accountability in a family, or a company, or a community. Decisions have outcomes, good and bad, and the one who decides must accept responsibility for the outcomes. The decision to dope was a huge decision that impacted families, team members, other competitors, the sport itself, the charitable foundation built around Armstrong's achievement, and a world of fans who were inspired by the man.
These people were misled, and while they have lost faith in a hero, they may also, as a result, have lost a little faith in themselves and their own ability to overcome obstacles and challenges in life. If the best, and most talented, are willing to cheat and nearly get away with it, then why should the least gifted struggle to do the right thing in a world built on zero-sum competition?
How have you chosen differently from Lance Armstrong when faced with an opportunity to cut corners or cheat in order to achieve something you deeply wanted? Have you known others who have chosen to do the right thing and lost, but have found, in the process, self-respect and honor?
Peter Georgescu is the author of "The Constant Choice."