Leading in Complex Situations: Rashomon and Covington

If you’re a fan of old-time classic films, you may have heard of, or even seen, a 1950 Japanese movie titled “Rashomon.” As succinctly summarized by Wikipedia, Rashomon “involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident.” The plot involves four characters: a woodcutter, a bandit, a samurai and the samurai’s wife. Each tells a different story of a murder. Which story is true? It turns out, they all are — each tells a piece of the story from their own perspective, and one cannot understand the whole story without integrating the individual pieces.

A modern-day Rashomon occurred recently in Washington, D.C. and serves as a lesson for leaders who may find themselves trying to get to the bottom of potentially complicated situations. A group of students from Covington (Ky.) Catholic High School participated in the March for Life and then gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. They were shouting their high school fight songs and many were wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats. Early video seemed to indicate they were engaged in a standoff with an elderly Native American man who was dressed in tribal clothing and singing a tribal chant while playing a drum. One of the students came forward, stood directly in front of the drummer and smiled; meanwhile his fellow students appeared to be laughing, jeering and making a gesture that appeared to be a tomahawk chop. The video went viral, and many viewers immediately judged the event to be a racist confrontation by the students.

Over time, a longer version of the video was circulated and the story became more complex. The encounter transpired among protestors, known as the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were shouting slurs at the students in the longer version of the video. Nathan Phillips, the Native American drummer, said he had stepped between the students and the Black Hebrew Israelite protestors, believing his chant would defuse the tension. The smiling student said that he was not smirking at Phillips but attempting to use his smile to also defuse the tension. The Catholic Diocese of Covington apologized for the students’ actions, indicating that the students and their families were being threatened for their conduct in the video. The Covington community, deeply committed to its high school and its strong sports-oriented culture, rallied around the students and defended their actions, accusing the media for blaming the students. President Trump and the White House offered support for the students and the school. As of this writing, the school and the Diocese are attempting to sort out whether punishment is deserved for the students’ actions.

This incident is extremely complex for the number of polarizing lenses through which it was seen: the students who participated, the specific actions of the smiling student and the Native American drummer, the different racial, cultural and religious groups represented (white, black, Native American, Catholic and Hebrew), the political left and right, various reports and all of the different observers—in Covington and nationally— who watched and judged the same video clips. One could not have written a better script for a modern-day Rashomon.

One way to judge the Covington incident is to determine which parties acted with greater character — the moral sentiments of honesty, integrity, fairness and a broad concern for human welfare. The students said they were reacting to taunts from a protestor group by showing solidarity and school pride — although perhaps out of fear and in an immature manner — and not recognizing the message some might infer by their MAGA hats and tomahawk chops. Some say a student attempted to show courage by moving to the front and smiling at the drummer and the other protestors; yet the smile was widely interpreted as a smirk by those initially observing the interaction. Some say Nathan Phillips appeared to show character by positioning himself between the two groups at his own personal risk — but perhaps inflaming the perception of ethnic stereotyping by introducing a Native American image and unique peacemaking approach (the drumming and chanting) into what was already a complex standoff .

And once the other various ‘audiences’ got involved — all those with video on their phones, tweeters and commentators, the Catholic Archdiocese and its doctrine, parents, school leaders, community members, the political left and right and even President Trump — the rush to judgment of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ quickly swamped the more important but complex issues of whose actions did more to exacerbate the situation — rather than resolve it.
Acting with character is not just determined by individual intent; it must also be viewed and judged by others as moving beyond self-interest to broader principles of honesty, integrity, justice and acting with the highest motives for collective benefit and well-being.

While it is easy to talk about these judgments in abstract terms, the Covington incident shows how these judgments can be complex, interpreted in multiple ways and ultimately lead to almost impossible decisions about who showed greater responsibility and who acted with greater character.

Leaders may find themselves with their own Rashomon or Covington.. It’s important to understand complex situations will present themselves and time is needed to determine all the facts before coming to any conclusion — whether that’s managing a conflict between two employees, an incident on a warehouse floor where there are multiple perspectives or other scenarios.

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