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The demands of credible leadership

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?

The details of what happened between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Sofitel employee are continuing to be revealed. All of the facts are not yet known; perhaps they never will be. What we do know is that Strauss has a history of infidelity and, in his own words, has exhibited “questionable judgment” in the past.

 Leaders will make mistakes; they are not perfect, but when there is a pattern of behavior that strains credulity, it raises serious questions of character.

 Losing credibility is almost irreparable in the harm that it does. Once lost, it is nearly impossible to regain. When followers lose respect for and trust in a leader, even when the leader changes their behavior, doubt about their veracity lingers. The motivation to follow someone like this dwindles and can be easily reduced to self-preservation and pure survival. The longer leaders who lack credibility stay in power, the more corrosive they become to a culture; they exemplify a destructive level of narcissism. Strauss-Kahn’s alleged behavior has once again shone a spotlight on leaders whose ego inflation has made them impervious to consequences.

The cultures created by shadow-laden leaders become systems in which the espoused core values are continually compromised. This obvious and visible lack of integrity diminishes their capacity to influence the behavior of others or to achieve the organization’s goals without coercion or abuse of power.  

When the narrative order of a person’s life reveals so many major lapses of judgment, it isn’t just a reminder of human frailty; it is a sign of a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement, of a major character flaw. To retain Strauss-Kahn in the position of IMF head — one that requires a high level of competence and unquestioned ethical, trustworthy behavior — would have been tacit approval of duplicitous, illicit and perhaps illegal behavior.

Either we are witnessing sociopathic behavior or chronic, poor judgment; either one renders a leader unfit to remain in a position that demands ethical, credible leadership.

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

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Katherine Tyler Scott  | May 13, 2011 11:45 AM

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