How One Leader Overcame Career-Ending Adversity


BRIAN KENNY: If you’ve listened to Cold Call before, you may have heard our discussions about cases that focus on individual acts of courage and leadership, like the case about Muhammad Ali risking his boxing career as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, or the one about Madame Curie, whose tenacity led to discoveries that forever changed the world of medical science, netting her two Nobel Prizes. We discussed a case about Martin Luther King’s crucible moment to forge ahead with his civil rights work in the face of death threats, and Cynthia Carroll, CEO of a South African diamond mine, who against all odds changed the industry to save the lives of miners. These people are all the subjects of books and screenplays, but not all profiles in courage make headlines.

Today on Cold Call, we welcome Professor Tony Mayo to discuss the case, “Raymond Jefferson: Trial by Fire.” I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Podcast Network. TONY MAYO studies leadership and he is the course head for the MBA course, “Leadership and Organizational Behavior.” He is also the coauthor of, Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience. And he is a repeat customer on Cold Call. Welcome back, Tony.

TONY MAYO: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BRIAN KENNY: Great to have you here. We were just discussing the last time we did this was during COVID, so we were in remote studios. But today, we’re in Klarman Hall in our own home studio, so it’s great to be here in person with you. And I really enjoyed this case. I think people are going to enjoy hearing about Raymond and kind of what an impressive life he’s had, and the experiences that he’s been able to weather, so thanks for writing it. And why don’t we just dig in? If you could start by telling us: What’s the central theme of the case? And what’s your cold call to start the discussion in the class?

TONY MAYO: Okay. The central theme of the case is really about one’s ability to face adversity. And what do you do in the face of adversity? When you face obstacles and challenges and hardship, do you shrink from that? Do you face it head on? What do you learn from it? And our opening question is: Who Ray Jefferson? And how has he navigated his career? So, that’s really trying to understand, who is the core of this particular individual? And as we look at the arc of his career, which is sort of interesting twists and turns and hardships, how has he navigated that?

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And it really gets into some interesting dynamics about his background in the military, which we’ll talk about, and his experience leaving the military and going into the public sector and how different the values may be and the approach to doing business is there, so that’s great. Why did you decide to write about this? And how did you hear about Ray?

TONY MAYO: This case came about after the Dean’s Anti-Racism Task Force. That was a call from the school to increase the diversity of our case protagonists, and diversity across a broad spectrum, including cases about people with disabilities, cases about military veterans. And I heard about the case from actually Professor Scott Snook, who was also a West Point graduate and a faculty member at West Point and a faculty member here. And he reached out to me and said, “Hey, there’s an opportunity to write this case about Ray Jefferson. Are you interested?” And I looked into it and decided I was interested. At the time, I was teaching “Authentic Leader Development,” and I thought this would be a great case for our module on crucibles and how you deal with crucibles.

BRIAN KENNY: I think you’re right about that. Let’s talk about Ray then. Can you talk a little bit about his childhood? And I’m wondering who his influences were when he was growing up.

TONY MAYO: So, Ray grew up in Upstate New York, had a pretty typical childhood, although like many individuals, he came from a family whose parents had marital difficulties, they struggled. They eventually divorced. But his family had some challenges when he was a youngster, and that actually affected his ability to be successful in school. He was less focused. He was sort of all over the place. I think at one point, he was accused by one of his teachers of being stupid and not following the rules. And that actually lit a fire under him, and he said, “I’m not stupid.” And he turned around his grades. This is an early sign of this arc of his approach like, “I’m going to prove you wrong. I’m not who you think I am.” And I think he needed some focus in his life and he got that through actually this brochure about West Point that the guidance counselor had in his class in his office. And he saw this brochure and he said, “Hey, what is that?” He saw guys jumping out of helicopters and boxing and doing all these other things. Oh, my God, this is the great life. So, that actually motivated him to say, “Oh, there’s a future here. There’s a sense of discipline and duty.” The other thing that was a huge influence for Ray was martial arts, and so he, as a birthday present, he got lessons for one month of martial arts. And his parents said, “Look, if you want to continue, you’ve got to do it on your own.” And he basically bartered with the instructor that I will clean the studio. I’ll do janitorial work if you can allow me to continue on. And that became a huge influence, martial arts and this sense of duty. It was channeled towards the military, but this sense of duty and sense of purpose. He was a kid who actually, which is unusual, he would write these life maps. He’d map out: Where is my life going to go? And what am I going to do? It’s pretty unusual, but for Ray, I think he was seeking something. He was seeking this sense of purpose.

BRIAN KENNY: You mentioned the martial arts and how important that was for him. There was also a book that comes up in the case. I’m probably not going to pronounce this right, The Kyokushin Way.

TONY MAYO: Yeah, that’s right.

BRIAN KENNY: Tell us about that book.

TONY MAYO: Yeah. So that’s a book that’s ostensibly about martial arts, but really is about how to lead your life. It’s about principles and purpose and direction. Yes, it’s about some tactics of fighting, but it’s much more, 90% about how you lead your life, how you lead with others with dignity and compassion, how you hold yourself. How do you keep a sense of centeredness? And that really spoke to Ray. That spoke to his sense of purpose and direction and wanting to sort of channel himself in a particular way. And he talks about, when we interviewed him, he pulled the book down from his-

BRIAN KENNY: Still has it.

TONY MAYO: Right. He’s had it for over 40 years. And he goes back to it to ground him in terms of who he wants to be and who he aspires to be.

BRIAN KENNY: I’m curious. You obviously met him in the course of writing the case. What’s his demeanor like? How would you describe him?

TONY MAYO: He is a man of passion and purpose and duty. He has this infectious enthusiasm. He’s outgoing and he’s somebody who sort of lights up a room. He takes charge and he brings a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of drive to what he does. And I experienced that with him writing this case. He’s also a very kind person. He was always in our interviews and our calls, asking about me and how I was doing. He was definitely somebody who has a sense of who he is. And given his life experiences, you could’ve expected him to be a bitter person, to be angry, to have a lot of regrets. And I didn’t experience that with him at all.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, yeah. Let’s talk about his time at West Point at the military. How did that affect him?

TONY MAYO: Yeah. So, his life map actually, when he mapped out his life, one of the things was going to West Point and he got in.

BRIAN KENNY: Which is no small feat, by the way, getting into West Point.

TONY MAYO: No, no, not at all. And he had a typical experience, I think he survived the difficult challenges of being a new cadet and figuring his place there. And it can be an overwhelming place. And I think he found his place there in the boxing arena, so he channeled some of his energy and passion into boxing and made this larger place a little bit smaller for himself. He also learned to lead there and he learned the principles of leadership, and I think that was a huge, huge influence on him.

BRIAN KENNY: Now to this point in his life, he’s had some adversity. He’s had the troubled marriage with his parents. But the adversity is about to really get much worse, so maybe you can talk about what happened in Okinawa.

TONY MAYO: To talk about Okinawa, we probably should talk a little bit about what got him there to begin with. So, when he was at West Point, he graduated, he joined the Presidential Honor Guard, and as part of that, he had to go to ranger school, which is this huge grueling experience for him. And one of the things he wanted to do there is to get this expert infantry badge, which is one of the most difficult badges you need to get. And he ended up having to take this navigation course, got lost, had to call ranger control.

BRIAN KENNY: Not what you want on your navigation course.

TONY MAYO: Not what you want, super embarrassing. But I think the reason I say this story is that this is another sense of defeat, where he comes in last in this navigation course, and then the following year, he comes in first. He’s able to sort of figure this out and to move forward. And so eventually, he passes ranger school and he ends up in Okinawa. And he’s in the best physical shape he’s been in. He’s revered by his teammates. In fact, a couple of service members sort of asking him to actually lead their particular group, and so it’s a great experience.

And one of the things he was doing in Okinawa, they were testing stun grenades. And one of the things when you deal with a stun grenade is when you pull the pin out, when you hold it in your hand, nothing’s supposed to happen. When you release your hand and you get ready to throw it, you hear a whoosh of air, and then you get a few seconds to throw it out before it detonates. And so, he’s testing these as part of this critical mission that they’re getting ready for, and he pulls the pin out and he hears a whoosh instantly, which you’re not supposed to hear if you’re holding it in your hand.

So, he’s thinking, Oh, my God. I’ve got a defective grenade. And he’s thinking, What do I do? And so, if I could throw it up in the air, it may not come down, or it may come down too fast and I could blind myself or blind others. If I throw it close proximity to where I am, there are other of my teammates there. They could get hurt.” And it’s option, reject, option, reject, trying to figure out. What do I do?

BRIAN KENNY: It’s all within seconds.

TONY MAYO: You have four seconds, so that’s four seconds, longer than what I’m telling to explain it.

BRIAN KENNY: Right.

TONY MAYO: And then he takes it in his hand, his left hand. He presses it against his thigh and it explodes. And he loses all of the fingers on his left hand and most of his palm, and he severely injures his thigh. And he figures in that particular moment, “My life is over.” And it has, as I know it, it’s over.” In a matter of seconds, everything has changed for him.

BRIAN KENNY: So, he did the sort of proverbial falling on the grenade.

TONY MAYO: Yes.

BRIAN KENNY: To protect the lives of his troops that were with him there.

TONY MAYO: Yes.

BRIAN KENNY: So, that must’ve been tremendously difficult for him to overcome mentally and physically. Can you talk about how he approached that?

TONY MAYO: So, he ended up spending several months at hospital in Hawaii. And they actually had to sew his left hand to his femoral artery for an extensive period of time. And it was a tough time, as it would be for anybody. He had some very dark days. But I think the way that he approached it and way that he got through it was that he compartmentalized it. He didn’t sort of say, “Let me look at the future.” I’m sure he had days when he looked at the future, but it was more about, “Can I get through this next day? Can I get through these next 24 hours?” And he prayed and he sought solace in just getting through each day as it came, as opposed to thinking about what is the long-term plan.

And so yes, there were dark days, but he was able to find a sense of purpose and making an accomplishment each day. And so, there’s something that our colleague here, Teresa Amabile, talks about these small wins, and you have these small wins. She’s applying it to business, but I actually think it applies here too. If you can compartmentalize things, if you can put things into small chunks and say, “Okay, if I can get through these next 24 hours, if my rehabilitation, if I can get this one step closer, if I can use this functionality, then I can continue to go on.” And that’s what he tried to do.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. That’s another example though of him sort of taking, you can’t count me out, this isn’t going to stop me, kind of thing, so that determination is serving him well in this instance.

TONY MAYO: Yeah. And even when he went back and he recovered and the military doctors told him, “Look, you’re never going to be able to do push-ups again, you’re never going to be able to compete in this way-”

BRIAN KENNY: That’s all he needs to hear.

TONY MAYO: He’s like, “Wait, okay, let me prove you wrong.” And he ultimately did prove him wrong and ended up channeling his skills into martial arts competitions and things of that nature.

BRIAN KENNY: So, what do you think the most valuable lesson was that he took away from that horrific experience?

TONY MAYO: I think the biggest lesson that he talks about is that the need to ask for help and the sense of vulnerability. So, I think he’s a person who had a lot of self-initiative, a lot of drive, a lot of determination. He’s used to doing things on his own. He couldn’t necessarily rely on his family. He took things under his own control. And then when you’re faced with this situation where your life is different than it’s ever been and you need help, asking for help was so hard for him, but it was what he needed to do. And I think he needed to learn that vulnerability was a strength and it demonstrated courage, not weakness, and that was a good lesson for him.

BRIAN KENNY: So, you’ve studied hundreds if not thousands of leaders, going back in history. Is this a common characteristic that you think makes for a particularly effective leader, this ability to be vulnerable?

TONY MAYO: Yes, it does. And I think there’s a lot of misconception about vulnerability that it’s a sense of weakness and that people could use it against you, and you don’t want to be open. But actually, it takes courage to be vulnerable, to be open, to share experiences. And it actually reciprocates vulnerability. Yes, sometimes you’re putting yourself out there and you won’t get it back. But more often than not, people will reciprocate with vulnerability to you, and you build deeper connections and deeper relations.

BRIAN KENNY: Do you think it’s more challenging in a military hierarchy to show that vulnerability?

TONY MAYO: I think so, yeah, definitely. You have all the stereotypes of: What does it mean to be a military leader and this sense of stoicism? And so, I think that was probably part of Ray’s character, but I think this opportunity sort of jolted him in a way, and he recognized the strength from this vulnerability.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. But Ray’s not done yet.

TONY MAYO: No.

BRIAN KENNY: He’s heading off to the Obama administration.

TONY MAYO: Yep.

BRIAN KENNY: What was his focus there?

TONY MAYO: So, his focus was to join the Department of Labor that focused on veterans’ employment. So, he was lucky to be asked to be part of the transition team when Obama became president. And through that, he got this opportunity to work with The Department of Labor to focus on veterans and particularly employment opportunities for veterans.

BRIAN KENNY: And he brings some of his can-do attitude to this job and he finds ways to get stuff done.

TONY MAYO: Yes.

BRIAN KENNY: Right? Talk about that a little bit.

TONY MAYO: Yeah. So, he decides that he’s going to do this 100-day sprint. He’s going to have 22 objectives and he’s going to focus on improving policies and improving talent and a bunch of different things, basically shaking up the veterans’ employment agency. And his peers and his colleagues there are saying, “Look, 100 days, are you crazy? This is 18 months if you’re lucky.” But he does it in 100 days. He achieves his 22 objectives. I mean, some of the main things that he did was that he decided to build a partnership with the chambers of commerce called Hiring Our Heroes, figuring, “Where are the jobs?” It’s actually in local communities. Let’s work with the chambers of commerce, and they’re not a group that typically would’ve worked with the veterans group.

He also fundamentally revamped and improved the transition assistance program. So as veterans are transitioning out of the military into civilian life, how do they make that transition? What are the services? And then the other big thing he did was work with the job corps program, particularly for younger veterans who may not have all of the skills or the education they need to be successful in the workforce, but they can join these job corps programs, build some great vocational skills to enable them to be successful, so a bunch of different ways. That’s what he did externally to help his constituents, the veterans. But also, internally, he was trying to shake up the department by focusing on performance metrics and performance reviews and accountability, putting all those sorts of things.

BRIAN KENNY: This is all great stuff. Isn’t it?

TONY MAYO: Yes. It is.

BRIAN KENNY: So, how was this received by his colleagues at the Department of Labor?

TONY MAYO: So, I think it’s like any organization that’s going through change. You’re going to have some people, if you think about the culture of people who worked at an organization that’s been around for a long time, you’re going to have people who are thirsty for change and are like, “Oh, we’ve got this,” if I’m going to be a pun, a ray of light with Ray coming in. And he’s going to change things up and we’re going to be able to do more for veterans. But then you also have these people who’ve been there for a long time who are comfortable with the way things are operating and are complacent. And so, you’ve got this mixed culture that you’re dealing with.

So, he comes in and he has a bunch of people who are passionate, but also a bunch of people who are naysayers. But this is the Ray that we’ve come to know is that he’s got this dogged determination and he’s going to try to convince the naysayers to get on board and to push the agenda forward. He’s going to be just solely focused on the mission. And I think if you think about even his military training and his military bearing, you’re focused on the mission. Our mission is to improve the lives of veterans and to improve the employment opportunities. And we’re going to do that at all costs. And I think that was both a strength and a weakness for him.

BRIAN KENNY: So, what happened there?

TONY MAYO: So, he had some success at the Department of Labor, but I think that what ended up happening was that he had two employees accused him of improper hiring practices, that he hired a friend and he paid a friend that he had worked with at McKinsey, at his short stint at McKinsey, and that he had paid this particular consultant exorbitant rates. Turns out, he never worked with this individual and he followed all of the protocols associated with hiring this particular individual. But nevertheless, these two individuals, these were two employees that had worked for Ray, and both were disciplined by Ray. Both were accused of lying. And instead of terminating them, what he did is he allowed them to have graceful exits. So, with one individual, who was a couple months away from a 20-year pension, he decided to give him a few months’ job to be able to retire with those 20-year pension. And then the other individual, he helped facilitate that person’s transfer out.

And so, he thought he was doing a good thing. Right? These were employees that had lied. They’d showed some issue with their character, and he thought he was helping them. But unbeknownst to him, behind the scenes after they had left the department, they got together and they did this whistle-blower suit alleging that Ray had done this improper hiring and this over budget. And that actually went to an inspector general who did the investigation, brought it to the deputy secretary of the Department of Labor, who basically took it at face value. And this is part of the challenge, one of the things with Ray is that he was so focused on the mission, he was not focused on managing up.

So, if you think about lessons here, yes, he would provide updates and he would do the things that you needed to do manage up, but he didn’t play that game in the way that sometimes you need to play to facilitate things moving forward. And the deputy secretary of labor and the secretary of labor, they didn’t get along, so there’s factions there. And Ray chose not to make alliances with either one, that they would just focus on the mission, and so anyway, there’s the sense that this deputy secretary of labor decided, “Oh, this is my opportunity to get rid of Ray, so I’m going to just take this at face value. I’m not going to do any further investigation.” And he approached Ray and said, “Look, I’ve got these allegations that have come forward, and you basically have four hours to make a decision. You either resign today on your own accord or we’ll go through this process of terminating you.” And so, Ray decided ultimately to resign saying, “Look, I can easily prove these are false allegations. All they have to do is call McKinsey, find out that this individual never worked there, that I didn’t know him, that we followed all their protocols.” So, he thought, Yes, I’ll go through this charade, quote, unquote, of resigning. But in a couple of days or a week at most, this’ll all be behind us. But the next day, after having this meeting, the deputing secretary of the Department of Labor decided to have a press conference and make this a public repudiation of Ray and his role. And it just became this public scapegoating of him.

BRIAN KENNY: It’s like a runaway train at that point, yeah.

TONY MAYO: Yes. And so, once that gets in the press, your reputation, even if you’re innocent, is soiled because anybody that does a cursory Google search will say, “Oh, so-and-so at the Department of Labor is accused of improper hiring,” or whatever.

BRIAN KENNY: It’s super hard to recover from that.

TONY MAYO: He could’ve fought back at that moment in the public forum, but thought, “Look, this is going to be easily resolved. I don’t need to make … I don’t want to go this public tit-for-tat with the Department of Labor and the deputy secretary.”

BRIAN KENNY: So, there’s a little naivete there.

TONY MAYO: I think so.

BRIAN KENNY: But there’s also kind of his core values. And the case alludes to this, that his core values coming out of the military, falling on the grenade, all those things make him want to do this in a particular way that feels respectful. But he’s playing a game with people, they’re playing a different game than he is.

TONY MAYO: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s true. And I think that one of the things, if I were to look back at what were the seeds of this particular situation, had he built a relationship with the deputy secretary of labor, if he had some social capital there to begin with, I don’t think this would’ve gone down a particular path. But there’s politics involved and there’s certain reasons that things happen, and he didn’t play that game very well. And what ultimately ended up happening is he spent the next eight years and his entire life savings to clear his name, and he eventually did. It was just very rare. In fact, one of the individuals we interviewed for the case said that there was a less than 1% chance that the government ever admits that they’ve made a mistake.

BRIAN KENNY: Of course. Yeah.

TONY MAYO: And they eventually did exonerate him eight years later. But it was a huge, huge setback for him.

BRIAN KENNY: But he had some people who really believed in him along the way, including his attorney, who it sounds like represented him for free for a while without getting any fees.

TONY MAYO: Yes.

BRIAN KENNY: Why do you think he was able to do that with Ray?

TONY MAYO: Peter Choharis, who was his attorney, he got some fees. I think he got all of Ray’s life savings, but it was a fraction of what he would normally get. And I think he did it because he saw in Ray a person of duty, a person of purpose, somebody who he says, “Ray, you didn’t let go of that grenade. I’m not going to let go of you. We’re in this together. And I believe in you.” And I think for Peter, it was his sense of duty and his sense of responsibility to be there for Ray when Ray had his down days because clearly, going through this for eight years, you’re going to have ups and downs and you’re going to feel like giving up. And I think the two of them faced it as if they were in battle together, that this was a mission that they were going to accomplish together.

BRIAN KENNY: And yet again, here’s another situation where Ray could have chosen to become bitter and angry. Nobody would’ve blamed him for that, but it sounds like he didn’t do that.

TONY MAYO: No. The reason I love this case is that it’s a textbook example in many ways of how you deal with adversity. So, he exercises, he meditates, he journals, even in his darkest moments. He just puts all of that stuff on paper. And he has a support network. A little bit like when he was in the hospital thinking, Hey, can I get through these next 24 hours? If I can get through these next 24 hours, then I’ll get through the next 24. And so, I think similar to this process, it was a process of relying on friends, relying on support network, and doing the things that he had done, and through martial arts and thinking about his centeredness, his sense of purpose, his sense of emotional, spiritual wellbeing.

BRIAN KENNY: So, this has a happy ending, which is good. Thank goodness for that. What’s he up to now? What’s Ray doing?

TONY MAYO: So, it has a bittersweet ending, so one of the things when we were writing the case that Ray was so determined to go back into government service. He really, really wanted to join the Biden administration, and he actually was reached out to for a position in the Biden administration, but it got derailed in some of the Congressional committees. What Ray ended up doing is that he formed his own leadership consultancy experience. He’s actually based in Singapore. He does a lot of work on leadership in the Asian context. And he also has created this service academy program where it brings together different branches of the military to focus on service and leadership. He has channeled his leadership abilities into this leadership consultancy practice. And though he was not able to join the Biden administration, he was asked to be part of one of the commissioners for the White House Fellowship program, so he serves as a commissioner for that in the Biden administration now.

BRIAN KENNY: This is another one where we say to ourselves, “Why can’t we get people like Ray to work in government?” It’s because we won’t let them.

TONY MAYO: Yes. It’s funny because talking to some of his colleagues about if Ray were to go back into government service, which I think if an opportunity presented itself, he would do it.

BRIAN KENNY: He would do it, yeah.

TONY MAYO: He would do it in a heartbeat. Would he go back as Ray 1.0? No. Hopefully not. When you have this deep sense of commitment, this deep sense of duty, and you’re coming out of the military and you have that, and your collective team members have that, you expect that of others. And then you find out that’s not always the case. Right? Not everybody has the same mission. There’s competing agendas. There’s different things going on. And you need to be attuned to that. I think he’s more attuned to that now. I think he understands that. But the thing that I love about Ray is that he is so positive and so high energy. Even when this latest opportunity in the Biden administration got derailed, he kept a positive sense of energy and spirit and I admire that.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. That’s remarkable. Tony, this has been a great conversation, as I knew it would be. I have one more question for you, and that’s: If you want our listeners to remember one thing about the Ray Jefferson case, what would it be?

TONY MAYO: What I’d like people to remember about the Raymond Jefferson case is that the case isn’t just about Raymond Jefferson. It’s really about each of us. Right? And how do we face adversity? Do we try to avoid it? Do we survive it? Do we manage it? Or do with harness it, and thinking about it and the lessons that we can draw from it? And I think, like with any of our cases, it’s always a reflection of ourselves. And I think this is a great case to reflect on ourselves, hold a mirror up to ourselves to say, “When I’m faced with challenges, when I’m faced with obstacles, will I shrink from it or will I learn from it and grow from it?”

BRIAN KENNY: The shorthand being: What would Ray do?

TONY MAYO: Exactly. What would Ray do?

BRIAN KENNY: Tony, thank you for joining me on Cold Call.

TONY MAYO: Thank you so much.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like our other podcasts, After Hours, Climate Rising, Deep Purpose, IdeaCast, Managing the Future of Work, Skydeck, and Women at Work. Find them on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and if you could take a minute to rate and review us, we’d be grateful. If you have any suggestions or just want to say hello, we want to hear from you. Email us at coldcall@hbs.edu. Thanks again for joining us. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR Podcast Network.



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