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Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.
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Leaders as servants not seducers

Question: Given the nature of the allegations and his past history, could Dominique Strauss-Kahn recover the credibility necessary to lead the IMF, or run for president of France, even if he were found innocent of last weekend’s sexual assault charges?

In 1998, when I was a visiting professor at Sciences Po in Paris, the French ridiculed Americans for making a big deal of Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades. From the French point of view, a leader’s sex life had nothing to do with his leadership competence.

The Republicans leading the impeachment of Clinton were clearly dressing a political strategy in moralistic clothing. Their hypocrisy was exposed when it was discovered that their leader, Newt Gingrich, was hiding an adulterous affair at the same time he was sermonizing about the president’s immorality. However, keep in mind that the impeachment was officially based on Clinton’s lying, not the affair itself.

Most French people probably see Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s conduct in a different light from their views of Clinton or of former president Francois Mitterand, who had a secret extra-marital family. These were consensual relationships. Strauss-Kahn is accused of sexual coercion and assault.

Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proved guilty of the accusations in New York. Questions need to be answered. Was he set up? Is the accusation exaggerated? But if the accusation holds up, is it part of a pattern? Tristane Banon, a French writer, has reported that in 2002, she had to fight off Strauss-Kahn’s sexual advances. As managing director of the IMF, Strauss-Kahn was reprimanded for an affair with a subordinate who said she had been seduced. But as Michael Crichton argued in his novel Disclosure, seduction of a subordinate is hard to distinguish from coercion.

People have become increasingly distrustful of leaders, particularly those who use their position for personal gain or act as though they are above the law. While the public accepts the need for highly stressed executives to have perks like not standing in long lines at airports and staying at first class hotels, it does not condone leaders who oppress or exploit vulnerable people. We want leaders who use their position for the common good, not for their own power or pleasure.

Whether he is found innocent or guilty, Strauss-Kahn’s arrest is a tragedy for the IMF, France and the countries that benefitted from his competent leadership in a time of economic crisis. However, his fall should be a warning for the powerful that the public may sometimes excuse their leaders’ extra-marital affairs, but the law does not condone sexual assault and coercion.

This piece is part of a discussion with our On Leadership panel of experts about the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and whether his credibility is recoverable.

Click here to see our full discussion page, or dive straight into another expert’s perspective by following one of the links below:

Michael Maccoby: Servants not seducers

Michael Useem: Character shattered is career ending

John Baldoni: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the price of hubris

Warren Bennis: An extraordinary exception to the French media's typical languor

Marshall Goldsmith: DSK should never be an elected leader in France

Slade Gorton: Rehabilitation is nearly impossible for Strauss-Kahn

Michael Maccoby  | May 13, 2011 11:45 AM

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