Eric McNulty

Harvard-affiliated author, educator, and speaker interested in leading in turbulent times plus organizational culture, climate, cities, sys

Apr 26, 2020
Published on: LinkedIn
1 min read

I was saddened when actor Brian Dennehy passed recently. From all accounts, he died of natural causes unrelated to coronavirus though his career is particularly relevant now.

A little backstory: When co-authoring the recent book, You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most, I contributed a story from my own management career. I was leading a creative services group--a cost center in a world where revenue generators get most of the glory. Morale was down. As an antidote, I hit on the notion of the character actor. I explained that most actors are not big stars. In fact, some of the best are known as "actor's actors." They derive satisfaction from knowing that they practice their craft well and that their work is appreciated by others who understand that craft.

The idea garnered interest and we began discussing character actors. The one everyone gravitated to was Brian Dennehy. Indeed, he was one of the best character actors of his generation. We built a fan website and shared news about him with each other. He became part patron saint and part mascot.

Coincidentally, Dennehy was readying for a star turn on Broadway as Willy Lowman in "Death of a Salesman." We organized a trip to New York to see him on stage. I wrote, explaining our interest in him, and asked if he would meet us. To our surprise, he agreed. The performance was spellbinding (and earned Dennehy a Tony Award). And when he met us backstage, still sweaty from his intense time on stage, he was gracious and generous in telling us about his work. It was an unforgettable experience.

That story came to mind recently when I was speaking to some people on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus. They and many others are working long and hard to save lives. Yet for every Tony Fauci and Deborah Birx, there are thousands of unnamed public health professionals simply doing their jobs as best they can. There are tens of thousands of EMTs, doctors, nurses, techs, and support staff putting themselves in harm's way to help others. There are people making masks and rolling burritos to feed the frontlines. There are people checking on neighbors and making grocery runs for those who cannot get out. Yes, we applaud some of them from time-to-time to express our gratitude. Yet, we don't know their names and rarely will. Still, they toil on.

Increasing numbers of people on the frontlines are getting sick. Too many have died. Too many more will carry the scars of this trauma for the rest of their lives. These are our character actors in this grueling drama. We will get through this because these people--some professionals and others volunteers--step into their roles and practice their craft well. They exhibit dedication and grit because it is called for, not because anyone is noticing. And when this is over, their individual contributions will recede from our collective consciousness into a general recollection of the "they" who performed valiantly.

What I would like to see is a rolling of the credits. Each name and role listed individually. Every part, no matter how small, acknowledged. It would be a long list and in its length it would remind us of the many, many contributions that, together, added up to victory in this pandemic. With the extent of the effort so visible, we might then pull together to ensure that never again will healthcare workers lack the right protective equipment; that no more will caregivers be expected to survive on subsistence wages and paltry benefits; and that for no reason will we take any of them, or each other, for granted.

The thing about great character actors is that they allow us to see the humanity of the person they are playing without being blinded by the celebrity of the player. Those battling this pandemic are not actors and they are not acting. What we are seeing is their heart, their dignity, and commitment to something larger than themselves. They deserve our recognition and so much more.